So what will you be watching tonight on CNN?  I’ll confess that I plan on catching at least a part of tonight’s presidential debate, but then I also slow down to look at fender-benders on the side of the interstate when I pass by.  I don’t expect to see anything edifying, but somehow the possibility of witnessing something grotesque is just too hard to pass up.


Given that I spent much of the summer working through the papers of Abraham Lincoln, I know in advance that I’ll spend much of the evening thinking about how political debates have changed over the last century and a half.  When Lincoln famously debated Stephen Douglas in 1858 for a seat in the U. S. Senate, there was no moderator–only a timekeeper–and no pre-announced topics.  The first speaker had an hour for an opening statement, the second speaker was given an hour and a half for a rebuttal, and the first speaker concluded the evening with a thirty-minute rejoinder.  (Lincoln and Douglas took turns going first over the course of their seven debates.)  Tonight the candidates will offer a series of two-minute responses to six questions posed by a moderator (Lester Holt of NBC News), interspersed with responses to each other of similar length.  The entire debate is scheduled to last for ninety minutes.


The differences are instructive.  Surely they say something about the collective attention span of the Twitter Age, although I realize that in pointing that out I risk being dismissed for the old fogy that I am.  But seriously, who believes that such a format promotes anything but superficiality?  Does anyone seriously expect that a two-minute answer to a question on economic recovery or the federal debt or national security does anything but trivialize these difficult challenges?  The format reminds me of the Miss America pageant, or better yet, American Idol.  Why not replace the moderator with a panel of celebrity judges?

Political journalist Elizabeth Drew had an insightful editorial in today’s Washington Post (“Presidential Debates Seriously Distort Our Democratic System”).  Drew makes the very good point that

The debates test qualities that have virtually nothing to do with governing. Governing requires thoughtfulness, study, depth, patience, the ability to draw the most useful information out of advisers and arrive at the wisest policy. Consider the qualities that enabled John F. Kennedy to prevent the discovery that the Soviets had stationed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba from escalating into a calamity. During that tense showdown, Kennedy most definitely didn’t utilize his considerable wit and zealously avoided publicly humiliating Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Yet employing wit and one-upping an opponent are the two qualities most prized in the debates.

I think she’s right.  And my concerns were hardly alleviated when I went to the CNN website and saw that they have a feature with film clips from past debates highlighting the “best debate knockout lines“–exactly the one-liners that Drew is descrying as a false criterion on presidential potential.  Sigh.



  1. 26 September 2016

    I read the Lincoln-Douglas debates a number of years ago and was very impressed with the depth. And the time it took! What patience the audience had to hear them out. Of course they didn’t have Twitter, Facebook and the new season on TV to distract them. If it was a circus atmosphere then pre-Civil War circuses must have been very serious events. One isn’t going to see those kinds of debates in this age.

    And I would have to agree with Elizabeth Drew that just because one is a good debater doesn’t mean one would be a good President. I’m trying to think if there could be anything in the debate tonight that might change one’s mind about who to vote for or vote against or not at all. We’ll soon find out.

  2. One other signal difference between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and those of our own time: the Lincoln-Douglas debates focused on an *issue,* and the most momentous issue in American political history at that: slavery. They were conducted in a circus atmosphere, to be sure, and were, metaphorically at least, pugilistic, as the illustrations of the time clearly indicate. But the focus of the debates wasn’t on who would be the “best man” for the Senate; both men were simply stand-ins for their parties and their parties’ stances on the issue of slavery in the territories. And that is also why who “won” the election mattered so little. Lincoln “lost” but established himself as one of his party’s most eloquent spokesmen on its defining issue, and the defining issue of his time.

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