“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.” ~ Nelson Mandela
As a former academic debater and debate coach, I try to watch the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Debates every four years. I feel that argumentation and opposing viewpoints are in the grand tradition of this country. We are a country that gives almost unlimited value to our freedoms of speech. Using that speech to create a dialogue between differing ideas is one of the noblest and useful activities imaginable.
The nobility and utility of that dialogue should therefore — theoretically — reach almost dramatic, earth-shaking proportions when that dialogue occurs between four of the most important people in the United States of America. Those four people, of course, are whatever four individuals make up the main contending parties for President and Vice-President of the United States. (Someday I’d love to say “six individuals,” or even “eight individuals” — but for now, I can only dream of the dissolution of the Two-Party Frat Party that makes up the American political scene.)
I sighed when I wrote that last paragraph because the “theoretically” part — as far as I have ever witnessed — remains just that: theoretical. Every four years, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates are the opposite of what I hope they will be. They are an exercise in ignoble, useless mudslinging and fodder for pedantic talking heads. They are not dramatic. They do not shake the earth. They are benign. And the earth lies still. Very still.
Except for Facebook. Facebook loves the debates because the debates are such wonderful inspiration for memes and the groups “Things Liberals Hate” and “Things Conservatives Hate.”
Every four years, I try to watch. And every four years, I turn off the TV after I can no longer stomach the spectacle. (Except for one year when I had a bottle of whiskey to coat my stomach and ease away the pain. That year I watched one whole debate from start to finish.)
I cannot stomach these events because they give the Idea of Debate such a horrible name. Debate was my favorite activity in high school, my teaching passion in college, and the one thing I still to this day wish could be my occupation. It has at its core the ability to take the most shy person in a social group and empower them to speak up for themselves. It can take the least intelligent person in a class and turn them into a research addict. It teaches you to bravely face that which most everyone else fears more than death: public speaking. And being able to face that fear is a skill that will remain with you for the rest of your life.
Debate is a powerful tool.
Yet these debates we watch on TV are not debates. They are called “debates.” But there is no real exchange of ideas. There is no interaction between candidates — direct, purposeful interaction. There is interrupting, running over the moderator, and TV shots that try to get bad shots of the candidates. The whole event is set up to avoid letting the candidates evaluate the actual strengths and weaknesses of each other personally and argumentatively. I guarantee you that any high school debater I coached for a year could tear any of the candidates to pieces with their words — and do it within the time limit, without any personal attacks, and while still keeping composure and calm and respecting their opponent.
And it isn’t just the candidates themselves. The structure of these events is diametrically opposed to real dialogue. By simply having a moderator ask a question to one candidate, then ask the other candidate to respond, and then move on, — without even requiring the candidates to actually answer the question or respond to what the opponent said, — you do not get the give and take that is crucial to a vibrant debate. You could not even make a meaningful “flowchart” as students of debate learn to do, where you track the progress of an argument. There is no argumentative progress to track in the Presidential debates. Without having a lengthy wrangling over the most important issues, it is no surprise that people end up deciding the “winner” based on who had the less creepy smile or the prettier outfit.
Presidential debates in the U.S. should be exemplary not just because they feature potential Presidents and Vice-Presidents. They should be exemplary because they give the whole world the opportunity to see an example of how our freedoms of speech can be used to further democracy, political civility, and the exchange of ideas. They should be something that students and teachers of actual debate can point to as something to learn from and aspire towards.
Until that day comes, don’t call them debates. Real debates have a reputation to uphold.