Arthur I. Cyr: A candidates’ debate? Not really
The latest televised media melee among the surviving seekers of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020 is important. The significance stems from the fact that this sort of traveling circus has now become the main arena and process by which we, the American people, select the presidential candidates of our two principal political parties.
These TV shows are now generally organized and timed in advance of the ongoing primary elections and party caucuses held around the country. Analyst Charles Lipson of the University of Chicago refers to a “horserace media” that pressures the candidates to engage in the antics that may nudge their poll numbers up - or down - in the instant opinion surveys that are now constant features of this ongoing ordeal.
The media emphasize not who won the debate, but who were the stars of this particular show. Here the television and other media representatives who question the candidates play supporting roles, which may or may not prove influential, in attempting to guide perceptions and sway sentiment.
They are generally on the political left, with the distinctive exception of conservative Fox News. Unfortunately for public service and the public interest, National Public Radio and Public Television also engage in the liberal biases of much of the rest of the media.
True debate is an important rightly respected form of verbal competition, based on orderly procedures and established rules. Normally, each of two contending sides has an opening statement before proceeding to back and forth interchange and rebuttal, finishing with concluding presentations of each case. There may or may not be questions from third parties, in addition to a moderator.
Formal debate is intertwined historically with the slow, generally steady development of the Anglo-American common law tradition. That process has evolved over the past thousand years. The formality, fairness, and extremely demanding requirements for factual evidence and logical argument effectively guarantee the successful functioning of our law courts. That, in turn, provides the basic foundation of our system of public elections to representative institutions of our governments.
Insofar as public debate among candidates furthers the success of our representative government, this is commendable and indeed probably essential. A more informed public is a likely result of serious, restrained debate. The discipline essential to a successful debate also produces clearer thinkers, more informed decision-makers and ideally more successful public officials after their election.
Abraham Lincoln provides Exhibit A for our approach to politics and government, when functioning as intended. That system in the middle of the nineteenth century facilitated the success of this brilliant lawyer, and gifted natural politician, who excelled at debate. His skill at debate was demonstrated most famously in the numerous lengthy encounters between him and Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois during the campaign for the United States Senate in 1858.
Republican Lincoln failed to win the Senate seat, in that era allocated by state legislatures, but also positioned himself for the 1860 presidential election. News of his skill and dominance over Douglas in debate spread. Lincoln, already known within the legal communities, achieved a strong public following.
Today candidate “debates” are undisciplined free-for-alls where offensive statements, including personal insults, are part of the “game.” Instant media commentaries, and instant polling, are prime elements in the show. The crude, sometimes shocking “reality TV” entertainment form has become widespread since the 1980s. Earlier, television networks ruled out this type of program as unacceptable.
Is mob rule next?
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact email@example.com.