Persuasion: The Debates

Debates have been around as long as argument.

The process of individuals attempting to change the thoughts or actions of others—that is, debate—is itself a fundamental concept of a society that is to some degrees free, because it admits to the existence of other opinions—hardly standard in authoritarian and tyrannical societies.

In ancient India, around the time the epic Upanishads were written (approximately 800-500 BCE), Shastrartha was a debate in which scholars participated to reveal religious, philosophical, and moral interpretations. Women participated in these debates, and the renowned philosopher Gargi frequently contested male philosophers—and won. In Ancient Athens, although debate was widely practiced, women were not allowed to participate–yet there were exceptions who sneaked through: Aspasia (c 464 BCE- c 420 BCE) whose debating skills were so impressive Socrates credited her with making Pericles a great orator; Hypatia, born in 350 CE, who debated mathematics and astronomy as a means of teaching her students. It would take Aristotle (384 BCE-c 322 BCE) to codify debating, given his definition of rhetoric: “the faculty of discovering in the particular case all available means of persuasion.”

Persuasion may well be the only means of combining freedom and order, which is perhaps the reason that rhetoric—public speaking as persuasion—and democracy are inextricable.

It was in the Homeric period (between 850 and 650 BCE) that an evolution in forms of government—from monarchy to oligarchy, and from tyranny to eventual democracy–began in ancient Greece, and it was during the reign of Pericles (461 BCE–429 BCE) that Athens reached its greatest stature. Accomplishments included a liberalized judicial system to admit poor (male) citizens to serve on juries, the establishment of a popular (male) legislative assembly to annually review all laws, and the right of any Athenian (male) citizen to propose or oppose a law during assembly. Because of Pericles’ achievements, Athens became the center of western civilization, and debate was central to that. Plato, who had taught Aristotle, had devised an early form of the dialectic: a debate intended to resolve a conflict between two contradictory opposites, establishing truths on both sides rather than disproving one argument. Dialectic now joined rhetoric as a subject for study in Pericles’ Athens (study for boys). Eventually this ended in a compromise, wherein rhetoric, philosophy, and the dialectic became the debate-language of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even modernity.

If Greek debate was to persuade, Roman debate was a blood sport. Mitch McConnell would have felt right at home in the Senate. Under the early monarchy, the Senate had 300 members—patricians all–and its powers were vague. But with the abolition of the monarchy in 509 BCE, the Senate became an automatically constituted body with extensive powers in the Roman Constitution. It was the chief governing body in Rome, tendering advice on domestic and foreign policy, legislation, and financial and religious questions. Roman debates were politically vicious, and character assassination in the Roman Republic (509-27 BCE) was common. The fact that the people were excluded from the invective between senators in political arenas, yet were themselves allowed to insult and catcall the political elite, shows that the Republic’s politicians recognized the popular assembly, although by today’s electoral standards, it constituted a maximum of 3 percent of those entitled to vote. Still, those who questioned the people as decision makers risked crowds storming the rostra—though the people’s power was valid only in official political communication arenas. Oratory in general and debate in particular reached its pinnacle with the speeches of Marcus Tullius Cicero, an elected Roman Consul, statesman, lawyer, translator, philosopher, and copious writer who tried in vain to uphold republican principles. But since this was in a climate that would lead to the establishment of the Roman Empire, Cicero paid dearly for his politics. His severed head and hands were sent to Marc Anthony, and his tongue had been pulled out, testament to the danger his brilliant speeches had represented.

Under the Empire, the art of debating not surprisingly declined; one didn’t debate a Caesar, after all. But debate returned in a theological context as Christianity established itself, and certainly debating played an integral part in the rise of Parliament in England in 1215, with the signing of the Magna Carta (the word parliament is derived from the French word parler: to speak). As it evolved, Parliament became a grand arena of political argument. But debate really comes into its own in the Age of Enlightenment.

Debating societies emerged in London in the early 18th Century, and became prominent in national life. Such was the intensity of the parliamentary debate in England over the American revolution, that Pitt the Elder literally died of exhaustion in the middle of an impassioned speech on behalf of the revolutionaries. Debating covered a broad spectrum of topics, and debating societies allowed participants from both sexes and all social backgrounds; in fact, debating societies associated themselves with this trend precisely because it was accessible to all. During and after this period, a bounty of debating styles emerged: the Oxford style, Paris style, etc. Princeton University, in what was to become the United States, was the base of various student debating societies throughout the mid 1700s, and its influential American Whig Society was cofounded in 1769 by the young future revolutionary, James Madison. The First Continental Congress—indeed, all the original meetings of the Constitution’s Framers—reflect this robust, popular, intense method of “persuasive oratory.”

But it wasn’t until 1858, in the fight for an Illinois Senate seat sought by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, that political debates became a truly American tradition. These senatorial debates, with no moderator or panel, resulted from Lincoln following the more famous Douglas in his campaign around the state. Douglas finally agreed to take the stage with Lincoln seven times for three hours each, to debate the moral and economic quandaries posed by slavery. Douglas won the seat. But in those debates lay the seeds of what would be the Civil War.

In 1948, a presidential debate got a boost from a radio broadcast between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, both Republicans, in their primary. Between 40 and 80 million listeners tuned into the broadcast of the debate, which was about outlawing communism in the United States. With each advent of radio, then television, and now social media and the Internet, the debates have changed form, content, and style. Unfortunately, they seem to have largely abandoned substance in favor of personality, soundbites, and a gladiatorial air, all heightened in the era of Trump.

But as for those folks who shrug that debates don’t matter and change no one’s vote, consider some of the following golden moments:
* In the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of the modern era, Nixon refused to wear TV make-up and shrugged off the television audience as being the same as any audience. But Kennedy accepted make up, chose his clothes carefully, and got trained in television presentation. Nixon actually won the radio debates but, unprepared and sweating heavily under the hot lights, Nixon tanked totally with the TV viewership.
* In a 1976 debate with challenger Jimmy Carter, then-President Gerry Ford blithely (and erroneously) declared Eastern Europe was no longer under communist domination, when that region had been under direct Soviet control since the end of World War II; he added that Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania were “independent, autonomous” states. Ford bit the dust.
* In a 1984 debate, Ronald Reagan’s age became a topic of discussion–but he turned the tables, saying, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
* In the 1992 election, during a town hall debate, then President George H.W. Bush did himself in when he kept checking his watch and looking bored.
* Before the first presidential debate in October of 2000, Al Gore was widely favored to win against Bush 2. But his painful performance during the first debate changed the tenor of the race. First, he droned on and on about his “lock box” policy for Social Security and Medicare, and then came the sighs–audible and exasperated—every time Bush made another of his “fact-ish” statements. Problem was Gore came across as a condescending egghead and W’s lack of intellectual heft was rescued by his Texas swagger.
* And who could forget 2012, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney displayed monumental out of touchness when asked to address women’s pay equity? He replied, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of women!” The phrase “binders full of women” is a strong part of what did him in.

We’ve seen how, step by painful step, the process of democratization appears to stumble forward along with the concept of debating, because the basic premise of debate admits the existence of differing ideas. Still, it’s a painful process, because at one stage women are excluded; at another, enslaved persons; at another, somebody else. There are so many things to change regarding this election and its aftermath that it might seem slight to think about the shape of the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Besides, the format is already set in stone by the Commission on Presidential Debates, so what’s the point?

Well, the point is planning ahead. We Americans don’t do that even a millionth of the time we should. Like pay attention to the court system, or who runs for local office, or electoral processes—the machinery of democracy itself–until it’s too late. (The right wing has obsessed over stacking the courts from the bottom up for decades, and in Mitch McConnell they have their savior.) Most of the rest of us kind of amble along, not fully registering who’s running for what on a municipal level (which affects how we actually live), or what happens to our vote (when foreign powers aren’t sabotaging it). So we might as well admit it: we’ve been lazy. But at least that means we can welcome, albeit bitterly, this rude awakening. We are now decidedly “woke”. We know democracy is not a spectator sport.

So let’s try some ideas for better debates, to have them in place for what we hope will be the future. I’ve studied Michelle Cottle’s excellent piece in the New York Times, and ensuing response letters, and conducted my own admittedly unscientific polls. The following are my personal and evolving choices, and open to revision. I have, however, kept in mind that the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s group that works on debate reform has noted the most common complaints were that moderators play favorites and lack the skills to control candidates or to call them on their non-answers. (How infuriatingly true: where were the moderators when Donald Trump kept looming behind Hillary Rodham Clinton?)

1. Due to its funding by corporations and individual donors plus being answerable to the parties and candidates, The Commission on Presidential Debates should return control of the debates to the League of Women Voters, which had a superb record for running them for decades.
2. No live audience, even post-COVID-19. No cheering, jeering, partisan crowd. An audience tends to sensationalize every statement, and encourages candidates (and some moderators) to play to the crowd, which in turn influences how home audiences process the content.
3. Eliminating moderators entirely is conceivable, with the candidates on their own. But a moderator is necessary to keep order and for corrections (as in #4 and #8, below). Therefore, there should be a single moderator for each debate. Someone of stature more than of celebrity, serious, impartial, knowledgeable in both domestic and foreign affairs, civil but unafraid to follow up on difficult questions.
4. A Chess Clock to limit the time, and a Mute Button to cut off interruptions.
5. Each candidate to have a full hour and a half in which to speak, allotted as s/he determines via the Chess Clock. (Sometimes a direct “Yes” or “No” answer is actually refreshing! Besides, if a candidate uses up all the time in the beginning and then runs out, too bad.)
6. Space allotted for candidates to question one another directly–and to respond.
7. No questions in advance, as that leads to canned opinions by advisers. Spontaneity and thinking on one’s feet is the point.
8. On-the-spot fact checking as up to the moment as possible, to be read out by the moderator to the candidate in question, with demand for a response.
9. No personal attacks. Cost: penalties in time lost on the Chess Clock.
10. Given the option of citizens sending in questions for the candidates via video or other means, these should be vetted by an impartial panel, chosen by the League of Women Voters or some other impartial, non-partisan, non-profit group. Such a question period can take the form of a town-hall format for one of the three presidential debates, so as to keep a tight focus on in-depth questions for the other two debates.

There, that’s just to help us start thinking. It’s yet to be seen whether this election and its debates will be able to reverse the trend of superficiality and spectacle. Perhaps it helps to remember that former President Obama, in his first 2012 presidential debate with Mitt Romney, fared quite badly, until the stellar performance of Joe Biden in his debate with an overwhelmed what-in-hell-just-hit-me Paul Ryan inspired Obama to get back in the game. Meanwhile, let’s hope our future has debates in it, because if it doesn’t, then it probably doesn’t have democracy in it either.