In Kathleen Hall Jamieson and David S. Birdsell’s 1988 book, Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate, they write about the “classical concept of debate.” Nearly twenty-five years later, our presidential debates still follow this basic formula, though Jamieson expressed doubt in this week’s conversation with Bill and Marty Kaplan that debates still succeed in their goal of informing the electorate.
Read about how the classical debate should work in this excerpt from Presidential Debates.
Debate gains its vitality from direct challenge. Advocates who disagree meet one another face to face to argue their differences. Misrepresentation invites immediate response. Unprepared debaters risk embarrassment and audience rejection. The great debates of history such as Madison-Lansing, Webster-Hayne, and Lincoln-Douglas pitted one against the other in the same place at the same time.
Debaters enter such confrontation in the belief that the stronger side will prevail, truth will triumph over falsehood, logos over pathos. The tangible fact of the opponent’s presence acts as a check on discourse.
Alone on the stump, the politician runs few risks in padding his or her own record or hiding behind ambiguous appeals. By giving contesting candidates the opportunity to reinterpret, rebut, or take exception before a common audience, traditional debate raised the risks in distorting, dissembling or hiding behind platitudes. So, for example, when the dominance of a single party silenced political debate in the South after the Civil War, a long-time Southern politician pined for the good old days. “Forty years ago,” recalled Reuben Davis, “constant practice had made our public speakers so skillful in debate that every question was made clear even to men otherwise uneducated. For the last twenty years this practical union between politicians and people has not existed. Only one party is allowed to speak, and the leaders of the party no longer debate, they simply declaim and denounce.” As a result, “The people follow with confidence the misleading and uncontrolled assertions of their leaders, and act upon false impressions, to their own prejudice and the injury of the common good.”
The Rule-Governed Nature of Debate
By engaging in an orderly, rule-governed debate about ideological differences, individuals establish that they can resolve their disagreements peacefully. They can respectfully agree to disagree. Debate is a rule-bound activity with its peculiar protocols, time limits, and organization. All debates are structured, some more highly than others. The rules governing a debate are negotiated in advance, made plain to the audience, and accepted by the debaters. These rules usually specify the speaking order, length and function of the speeches as well as the overall structure of the exchange. The role of other participants such as the moderator may also be defined. By agreeing in advance to specified rules of procedure, debaters minimize dispute over such things, dispute that could detract seriously from the discussion at hand.
But debate is also bound by implied rules. Reason is privileged over emotion. Argument is considered superior to assertion. Tests of evidence exist. They guide judges to reject demagoguery and polemic for the reasoned case.
If truth can overcome falsehood in a fair encounter, and such fairness is ensured by the rules of debate, then there is no need for an elite to arbitrate political disagreements. The stronger arguments could prove persuasive. The merits of two-sided exchanges were recognized by G. B. Shaw who claimed that “The way to get at the merits of a case is not to listen to the fool who imagines himself impartial, but to get it argued with reckless bias for and against.”
The point of debate is not to win but to let the truth emerge and prevail. By defining them as games and assessing their outcome as a win for one side or the other, we make of debates something they were not originally intended to be. By focusing on gaffes, appearance, and strategy but not the logic of the argument or the cogency of the evidence, we reduce debates to contests. By dismissing good argument as a mere rehash of old stump speeches, we deny that the end of the debate is advancing a sense of which case is stronger and educating the audience in the process of making that determination.
Equal and Adequate Time
All parties enter a debate with equal standing. The more powerful faction is given the same time and governed by the same rules as the less powerful. Equal time is a fundamental principle in debate. Audiences cannot make useful comparisons of advocates who are granted different lengths of time. Moderators of televised general election debates cleave to this rule rigorously, timing candidates to the second and objecting strenuously when they run over.
The fact of equal time implies that various factions will listen to the positions advocated by their opponents and will then respond. There is an implied respect for the legitimacy of the other side and for the right of its advocates to carry forward its case. By requiring “listening” and encouraging engagement, debates become a means of educating all sides in the strengths and weaknesses of opposing positions.
The rule-governed nature of debate and its guarantee of equal time protect the minority. Unpopular views will not be suppressed but will instead be aired.
Successful debate hinges on a rough equality between advocates. Unmatched contestants provide a poor test of the ideas at issue. Academic debate preserves equality by pairing debaters of similar experience and skill against one another. Such a separation of accomplished and less accomplished participants requires shared criteria of what constitutes good debating and a clear method of tracking wins and losses.
The notion that contestants should be matched reveals the extent to which debate is designed to adjudicate issues, not to determine which advocate is the better leader. The focus of the Lincoln Douglas debates was an issue and only incidentally concerned the people who took the opposite sides on it. Voters who agreed with the side championed by Lincoln would presumably vote for him.
A Stated Proposition
By engaging the same proposition, debaters focus their exchange. Tangents are minimized. Agenda switching is discouraged.
Academic debaters argue a specific proposition, such as “The United States should significantly increase its foreign military commitments,” or “The federal government should adopt a comprehensive policy of land use control in the United States.” An affirmative team defends the proposition, a negative argues against it. As more than a topic area, the proposition provides an explicit focus for the debate, deepening the quality of the discussion and letting the audience know what the debaters are trying to prove. Their success will be measured by their ability to support or reject the resolution, not by smaller arguments or personal idiosyncrasies unrelated to that task.
An Audience Decision
Lawyers arguing cases before the Supreme Court are debaters of a sort, adapting themselves to the infinite complexity of the legal code, the decisions of prior courts, and the etiquette appropriate for the nation’s premier judicial body. The judges couch their decisions not in the language of personal preference, but of precedent, rule, and technical argumentation. Formal debating organizations such as intercollegiate societies also emphasize judicial neutrality. Judges are expected to suspend their ideological dispositions and vote for the more cogently argued side.
The audience for presidential debating is far less directed and accountable than the legal and intercollegiate judging pools. No written rules govern a decision on who “won” or “lost” a presidential debate. Audiences are free to vote preference rather than performance, and usually do. The audience probably employs some set of standards, but these are informal and inexplicit; candidates cannot easily make appeal to the “rules” in the course of argument.
One problem with the rules governing audience decision is that presidential debates require no formal decisions. Polling provides an idea of who looked best to the voters. But voters’ partisan dispositions influence their judgment. On the simple dimensions of win and loss, debates are meaningless unless they translate into votes. Votes, in their turn, are poor indications of success or failure in debate. The decision to support or reject a candidate rests only partly, if at all, on debate performance.
Used by permission of Oxford University Press, USA.
From Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate by Kathleen Hall Jamieson & David S. Birdsell, (1988)