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The De-Evolution of the Political Debate

by Brian Hasenbauer, published

The concept of debate and the presentation of opposing views in a public forum can be traced to the ancient Greeks as they discussed such things as the meaning of life, democracy and free will. With a mindset well stated by Aristotle that “an educated mind can entertain an idea without accepting it,” these philosophers and early statesman honed their rhetoric and debate skills in a civil but sometimes heated manner.

Regardless of the topics or personal feelings between these men, these early forms of debate were rooted in civil discourse and the discussion of current events in order to derive a better understanding and more rounded view of problems and common solutions.

While we continue to have debates and discuss politics in a public forum, what we consider a debate in 2016 hardly resembles how debates have taken place throughout U.S. history as best seen in the famous Lincoln–Douglass debates.

When I started thinking about this topic my mind went quickly to how the 2016 Republican Primary debates have devolved into a school yard brawl with name calling and “unintelligible yelling” as transcribed by a closed caption transcriber. While the 2016 Republican Primary debates put a bad taste in the mouths of those paying attention, this typically isn’t how the general presidential election is carried out.

During the general election, the number of candidates has been narrowed down and parties have settled in behind their party bearers. This makes the debates less of a yelling match or battle of the sound bytes in order to get noticed and more a policy discussion. While modern presidential debates are much more civil than those that take place in the primaries, the quality of our debates has certainly taken a step backwards since the substance filled debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

How did the United States go from a nation being able to discuss topics as divisive as slavery in a civil setting to the personal attacks and focus on issues of no consequence that we see today?

Three major developments have impacted the way we conduct presidential debates, each highlighting a new step in de-evolution: The emergence of televised debates, the control of the debates by the two major parties, and the 24-hour news cycle.

Lincoln–Douglas Debates

Beginning in the summer of 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas participated in 7 debates over two months that took place throughout the country, primarily discussing an issue that would soon divide the nation -- slavery.

The format of these 3 hour debates began with a 60-minute opening statement, followed by a 90-minutes statement by the other participant and finishing with a 30-minute rejoinder from the person that opened the debate. The format of the Lincoln–Douglas debates allowed each candidate the ability to convey their message in an uninterrupted and coherent manner.

Transcripts of the speeches were taken by journalists and published in their entirety with some editing before being inserted into local newspapers. Lincoln later compiled his speeches into a book that later served as the basis for his nomination for president by the Republican Party in 1860.

The debates of Lincoln’s life were widely covered by the media of the day, but the medium for delivering the news was the newspaper. Newspapers, unlike television, lack a visual impact and didn’t create disadvantages for politicians that wouldn't play well on television today -- like the tall and gangly Lincoln.

The Impact of Broadcasting Debates on Television

The legacy of presidential debates can be seen as being innately tied to mass media: newspapers, then radio, and now the modern television debates we have come to know. The Republicans had the first presidential primary debate broadcast on the radio during the election cycle of 1948 and the Democrats followed in 1956 with their first presidential primary debate.

This new focus on mass media and new ways of reaching potential voters in real time reached a crescendo in 1960 during the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The debate is often seen as the turning point where politics changed from being something driven by policy and ideas toward something more closely related to theater and being influenced by how someone looks and acts rather than the substance of their message.

The Importance of Nixon–Kennedy on Modern Debating

On September 26, 1960, Richard Nixon was seen by millions of television viewers sweating profusely and looking washed out by the lights of the camera. Refusing to wear make up, Nixon looked old and pale compared to a youthful John F. Kennedy.

It’s often been said that the lack of make up, easy to observe sweating, and a poor performance by Nixon during the debate gave Kennedy the edge he needed to win the election. After the defeat of Nixon, no incumbent president agreed to a debate for 16 years after until 1976 when Gerald Ford took the stage with Jimmy Carter.

It was during this debate that President Ford seemed to stumble on several foreign policy statements surrounding Russia’s domination of Eastern Europe and this stumble was seen as the turning point in the election that gave Carter a 4 point boost in polls and a win in November.

As evident by Ford’s blunder and memorable statements such as Senator Lloyd Bensten’s, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” during a vice presidential debate, it’s not just what a candidate looks like that can impact their favorability but also what they say and how they react to their fellow candidates.

For many modern presidential candidates, it’s much easier to speak in sound bytes and slogans, like “Make America Great” or “Yes We Can” rather than provide a detailed agenda. Speaking in slogans and using political rhetoric works well on television and plays well to the theatrics of television.

After all, voters will certainly soon forget the details of a policy speech as the 24-hour new cycle moves on to feature the next gaffe or attack between candidate, but they won’t soon forget a catchy slogan or quick witted comment.

Television has certainly impacted Presidential debates but not as much as the change in the control over debate rules which has resulted in the exclusion of independent and third parties from the debate process.

1988 – Bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates Formed

During the presidential debates of 1976, 1980, and 1984, the debates were sponsored and organized by The League of Women Voters, giving both the Republican and Democratic party an unbiased platform to air their candidates differences on key topics.

However, in 1988 the campaigns of both major parties began looking for more control over the debates. This led to the formation of the the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored every presidential debate since.

This sole change has not only served to put the two parties with the most to gain and lose in control of the process but has also served as a way to limit participation by third party candidates and independents, further securing the two-party grip on our electoral process.

The Impact of the 24-Hour News Cycle on Modern Debates

With the evolution of cable news networks and the 24-hour news cycle, fact-checking and journalism have been downplayed over the years in favor of sound bytes. As discussed earlier, network and cable television networks are not interested in airing dry, boring policy debates, and want to ensure high ratings for each debate.

Media companies and television networks are not solely responsible for the sensationalism and sound byte-filled debates. Voters are partially to blame as many would rather watch a news show or nightly news that covers the “highlights” of a 2-hour debate rather than watch the debate itself.

Social media adds fire to this 24-hour news cycle as a witty comment or attack on an opponent is usually turned into a meme and social media posts that can take on a life of their own.

So, what can be done about the way presidential debates have declined in substance and civility?

Solutions to Make Civil Discourse Civil Again

While fans of reality television no doubt enjoyed watching the most recent Republican Primary debate descend into “unintelligible yelling” as displayed by the closed caption translator, there are ways to make the modern debate format work within the confines of the 24-hour news cycle and partisan broadcasting networks.

For starters, the fall presidential debates have narrowed the field to two candidates (with the possible inclusion of third parties and independents if they get 15% support in 5 national polls) which helps to prevent the back and forth and chaos of the primary debate format.

In addition, a relatively new town hall forum style of debates has been used successfully in both the primaries and by the British to help define the positions of each candidate.

Town Hall Debates

A familiar form of the town hall debate is the format that was used in many modern debates, including the 1992 presidential debate between H. Ross Perot (the only third party candidate to be invited to a presidential debate), George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

This town hall format has each of the candidates on stage at once and allows for each of the candidates to make an opening statement and then a moderator fields questions from the audience and asks a few of their own. With only two or three candidates on stage, the dialogue between candidates is often cordial and substance-filled but sometimes requires the moderator to step in and refocus the conversation to avoid a back-and-forth that descends into personal and political attacks.

Town Hall Forums and British Style Debates as an Alternate

Another type of town hall that was used in both Republican and Democratic primary debates in 2016 follows the format of a moderator alternating asking a single candidate questions about their policies in addition to a handful of other questions asked by the audience of each candidate.

What makes this different from some of our past town hall formats, like that of 1992, is that it focuses on one candidate at a time and allows the moderator and audience to probe topics more deeply without the interference of the other candidate injecting themselves into the conversation in order to be heard.

We can all remember Ben Carson in the most recent Republican Primary debate begging to be attacked so he could have a chance to be involved in the debate. This town hall forum style is similar to what our neighbors across the pond use in Britain to help select their candidates.

While the town hall forum with a single candidate on stage at a time reduces the amount of name calling and creates a more civil debate process and should be used more in the primaries, this is not the head-to-head debate that Americans are used to and in my opinion deserve.

Listening and seeing how candidates respond to each other while sharing a stage can not only help gauge temperament but also serve as a test of their ability to think on their feet. True head-to-head debates with a limited field of 2 or 3 candidates can be productive as the field is not so large as to be uncontrollable as seen in the recent Republican primaries.

Photo Source: New York Times

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