The first televised debate between candidates vying for their party’s nomination for president during the primaries occurred in 1956 between Democratic contenders Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. That first debate was broadcast from the WTVJ studio here in Miami. That year my co-author on Argumentation and Debate: Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision Making, the late Dr. Austin J. Freeley led a group of professors of speech and debate to form the Committee on Presidential Campaign Debates to call on the candidates for the presidency to meet in debate in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Senator John F. Kennedy endorsed the proposal, as did most of the potential candidates for the 1960 presidential election race (Richard Nixon did not endorse the proposal!). In some ways it is gratifying to see that 60 years later, debates encouraging a depth of discourse not attainable through 30 second spot ads have become the norm, even the centerpiece of the campaigns that inform and enable our selection of president. Nonetheless, I wonder if Dr. Freeley would be pleased to observe this year’s GOP primary debates. I suspect not.
Of course, it took years for election politics and communication to evolve to the point at which they are today. The first presidential debates involving the two nominees of their parties during the general election campaign occurred in 1960 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy. That year there were four debates, labeled by the television network promoting them The Great Debates. They were really neither great nor debates. Rather than providing unscripted on-point clash over substantive issues, the debates offered the candidates opportunities to revive portions of their stump speeches when prompted by moderators’ questions. And while the image advantage of Kennedy may have been overstated, his solid performance in the first debate was likely enough to put him over the top in a close presidential election (even that result is debatable!).
It would be 16 years before the next presidential debates. Three were held in 1976 between President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter, as well as the first Vice Presidential debate between Bob Dole and Walter Mondale. Since that time, there have been presidential election debates during every election cycle, and vice presidential debates in all but one. These debates are not required by law, but it has become an expectation that the candidates will debate. In 1987, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates was established to help facilitate these general election debates.
The growth of televised primary debates, organized not by the Commission on Presidential Debates, but by the political parties and the media, is really a new phenomenon. While these debates had been held in the past, it was in 2008 that they exploded as nationally viewed and essential to the campaigns. During the 2008 primaries, as many as eight Democratic contenders for their party’s nomination and 11 Republican candidates participated in 47 debates. In 2016, more people are watching the primary debates than ever before, and as free media opportunities for the candidates, the debates have become the foundations of their campaigns.
I am a debate coach and a student of political communication. One would think I would be delighted at the proliferation of debates and their increasing importance in deciding the president. But these are not really debates. They are more simultaneous press conferences or parallel stump speeches. That does not mean they are not valuable. At their best, campaign “debates” can offer viewers opportunities to compare the candidates competing visions and philosophies. Occasionally, they even allow candidates to clash over their differing analysis of problems needing attention with consideration for their priorities and values, and proposals for concrete solutions to those problems. Debates present competing candidates on the same stage at the same time, offering us the opportunity to directly compare their grace and eloquence, performance under pressure, and perhaps most important, their connectedness to us, the voters. Research tells us that debates rarely change our minds, but they can inform us, inspire us, reinforce our already held beliefs and preferences, and motivate us. And they make us a part of democratic decision making, lending legitimacy to the process.
With the exception of occasional moments of clarity, the best that can be said of much of the 11 previously held “main stage” debates by the GOP this year is that they were sensational and entertaining. They shock us and hold our attention in the way a car crash or a comedy monologue by an obscenity-spewing comedian might. Friends in television have suggested to me, “…it may not be good debate, but its good television.” Helped by celebrity star Donald Trump, a veteran of reality television, production teams have apparently relished the increased ratings and sensationalism born of the shouting matches and insult sessions that the debates have frequently become. The moderators have frequently crafted questions which challenge the candidates for their misstatements or accusations, or pit candidates against each other, rather than offering candidates opportunities to offer their own analysis, themes, policies, or visions for the future. Audiences have been encouraged to participate with jeers and cheers, loudly reacting to the candidates “plays” as if at a sporting event. This all helps devolve the debates into name-calling, interrupting, shouting over opponents’ answers, and speaking in glittering generalities. Historically, the impact of debates was measured by the candidate’s gaffes and zingers. But yesterday’s gaffes have become today’s zingers.
I have been asked to provide a guide for viewers of the Miami debate. I am tempted to offer as my first tip, don’t watch. Watching is endorsing. It does seem we are encouraging continuation of the “Jerry Springer” style of debate, or even escalation if we continue to watch.
However, I am optimistic that our sense of civility and intellectual curiosity will eventually win out. So I will be watching, and hope you will too, with a critical eye of course. Here are some of my thoughts:
- Watch the debate with an open mind. Make up your own opinion unimpeded by others. DO NOT follow live social networking during the debate. This colors your perception of the debate and cheats you of your own autonomy. Good listening means hearing it out before reacting or cataloging your reactions.
- Install an internal MUTE. Do not attend to insults, name-calling, glib generalities or fallacies. Much, maybe most of the debate will be irrelevant to your assessment of candidates and issues.
- Recognize the complicity of the moderators. If they frame the debate so as to be confrontational or to put candidates on the defensive for the sake of intentionally generated heightened tension.
- Take notes. Really! Not verbatim, but enough to keep you focused. We pay better attention and learn better when we take notes.
- Listen for your issues. Some things are more important to you than others, pay particular attention to how these are addressed. This will be frustrating for me, as my most important concerns are climate change and race and culture. These are unlikely to be addressed in the GOP debate.
- Be a critical listener. Avoid fact-inference fallacies, straw persons’ arguments, and non sequiturs. (its worth looking these up, they have been the most common form of argument in the debates so far…). Most importantly, listen for PROOF and appropriately specific information. Ethical arguers back up their claims with evidence and reasoning.
- Don’t believe what you hear just because they said it. Fact-check the debate after its over. A few good sources for fact checking are:
Dr. Freeley and his colleagues were right to promote reasoned public discourse through debate as a means of helping citizens select their leaders in a democratic society. Failure to do so delegitimizes the democratic process. Meaningful debate makes the process work, and enables us to buy into the system. We as viewers are the most important part of the debate. Our job is to be open-minded, critical, attentive, and discerning. We have the power to select our leaders. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility (yes, I quoted Spiderman!).
Enjoy the Show!
David L. Steinberg
David L. Steinberg is a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies and is the director of the nationally-ranked University of Miami Debate Team.