In an October 1, 2020 editorial, the Advisory Board called for banishing the presidential debates. And though I won’t suggest those chaotic, destructive and totally uncivil 90 minutes on Tuesday constituted anything resembling a "debate," the format is crucial to democracy.
I’ve been a debate coach for twenty years. My national-award-winning team at Ottawa University (plug!) wants to win, but I beat into them that "argumentation" is a cooperative activity that always bends toward truth. Each participant must be dedicated to that principle even if that means losing. Many politicians could take some pointers from my team. They would do well to turn away from their increasingly polarizing and manipulative tactics.
The issue here is that the Board suggests that the purpose of a presidential debate is to…well…debate. The authors take an either/or approach (why aren’t they meeting with actual voters?; why aren’t they doing interviews?). But campaigns and these televised spectacles require a both/and. My Argumentation & Debate class this semester came up with six different purposes for the events. They are:
1. FUNCTIONAL (Did it help the public decide who to vote for?) Think about it. Folks probably got a good look at these men, what they stand for and how they communicate. 2. EDUCATIONAL (Did it inform the public about policy positions?) Sort of? I mean, there were glimpses of policy positions, even if they remain mysterious (e.g. a limited public option under Biden's plan; health care policy, writ large, for Trump) 3. INFLUENCE POLICY (Did it provoke new policy initiatives?) Yes, absolutely. How many officials condemned white supremacy and pledged to do more? 4. DISCREDIT OTHER POSITIONS/IDEAS (Were the candidates able to articulate [op]position?) This was basically the entire debate. 5. GENERATE PRESS, RATINGS (Less cynically: Did the candidates create a public record so we can hold them accountable?) Sure. And the ratings were through the roof.
With the exception of #2, turns out the debate DID fulfill its general purposes.
Of course, there's a big one missing from the above list. Presidential debates are also signals for 6. DEMOCRACY (Did the debate uphold democratic values?) Absolutely not. Civility is not always the most necessary component of civic discourse, but it can work in our favor. The debate, instead, showed a blatant disregard for the values of our Republic.
I worry about the countries that don’t have debates—autocratic, power-hungry men afraid of their opposition. It is a symbol of democracy that our debates even exist.
Because of this, both men have some soul-searching to do after Tuesday night—one more than other. I am mad at both candidates, to be sure; but I also allow room for one to defend himself against the repeated and purposefully uncivil rhetoric of the other.
The debate format needs to stay; but we should demand that its participants start acting more like my university team.
Ryan Louis, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at OU. He is also their Director of Forensics (Speech and Debate). He lives in Ottawa and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.