Real Debate?



In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was nominated, as an Illinois Republican, for a United States senatorial seat. His opponent was Stephen A. Douglas, the "Little Giant," who stood five feet four inches tall and weighed approximately 90 pounds, but who was nonetheless a towering presence in national politics at the time. Lincoln, on the other hand, was six feet four inches tall and weighed 180 pounds. His name was not then a "household word." A decade earlier he had completed a single two-year term in the House of Representatives, and that was the crux of his national exposure. Yet the two men agreed to meet each other in seven campaign debates. Their subject was slavery. Not only their physical presence, but also their points-of-view were in stark contrast with and largely antithetical to each other.  Douglas won the senatorial seat but, two years later, Lincoln prevailed over him to win the presidency. The debates between them proved to be a decisive juncture in American political history. Moreover, each debate continues to be a paragon of brilliant oratory, critical thinking, and noteworthy civility.

Let me emphasize that these were debates! They were not meticulously staged opportunities for soundbites, followed by a litany of instantaneous commentary from talking-heads. Citizens listened to the debates with rapt attention for hours. One cannot read the marvelous exchanges between the two candidates without sensing that each engagement was a battle between titans.

But let us pause here and ask: Where is this kind of expansive public consideration of issues practiced today? Or, why in American culture are we not treated to an in depth public discussion and analysis of issues between candidates? A soundbite from Senator Clinton, a blip from Senator Obama, and still another from Senator McCain. Oh, every now and then, of course, one of the candidates sits for an interview with a media personality, who asks questions of him or her and, then, edits the interview into a few brief nightly segments. As entertaining as this is, it hardly passes for serious, sustained political discourse. It does not begin to approach the kind of intellectual intensity of a true debate. The superficial discussions we witness today are as much about the media hounds who frame the questions as about the candidates who dance around and dodge the serious implications of them. The political process has become a shameless and intellectually vacuous endeavor. Thoughtful people see it for what it is.

I suggest that, from September through October, the two nominees for President meet in a series of four Lincoln-Douglas style debates. The first nominee will open for an hour, while the second will respond for an hour and a half. This response will be followed by a half hour closing from the first. The nominees, throughout their four encounters, will each be privileged to open and to close twice and to respond twice.

The subject of the first debate might be something along the lines of the following: "Resolved, that the public sphere be off-limits to the expression of religious and moral concerns." I guarantee that citizens from the political right and left, as well as those from every position in between, would pay careful attention to this one.

The second debate would engender economic interest and be just as culturally captivating as the first: "Resolved, that universities, businesses, and corporations, operating within the United States, not outsource jobs or hire non-citizens to fill them."

A third might also be provocative, especially for career-politicians: "Resolved, that United States elected officials be subject to strict term limits."  And, just to heighten public interest to the rafters, the last would concern a subject that our highest elected officials are not prone to discuss: "Resolved, that United States Senators and Representatives continue to benefit from their own separate, publicly-funded pension system."

I suspect that the first few times this plan for political engagement is tried, the discourse will appear less than intellectually robust, even anemic perhaps. The whole world will discover what some have always known, that the Republican position is often philosophically indistinguishable from that of the Democrat. This fact will, in turn, clarify a reality that I hope in time will be addressed – that political contenders often provide to the electorate an echo rather than a choice in policy-making. Whoever the presidential nominees turn out to be this fall, their ideas on many issues that are deeply troubling to the American people will be cut from the same bolt of cloth. Voters will find that they have no clearcut choice. This unfortunate fact impoverishes the political process. Could this also be one of the leading reasons why only a small percentage of the electorate show up to cast a vote?

May 4, 2008