The Presidential Debate

The first presidential debate is Monday and I am convinced it will not feel presidential. The primary reason for this is that one half of the debate is, as Colin Powell says, “a national disgrace and an international pariah.” I think of him as a child – unruly, self-obsessed, definitively lacks knowledge, glories in chaos and problem-causing, can not construct sentences well, appears to still be learning English, feels no need to tell the truth (or publicize his tax returns), and does not appear to value thought itself. He needs a mommy and daddy. Children should stay home and not enter politics.

But on the topic of debate, it is stunning to notice the time difference. In 1858, the opening speaker in the Lincoln-Douglas debate got 60 minutes. In 2016, the opening speaker will get 2 minutes. TWO. Or, if you will, 120 seconds. (I should go on to say that in the 1858 debate, the second speaker got 90 minutes!) That is a massive cultural difference. What exactly can you fit in two minutes? Nothing of great complexity. Our current system and culture reinforce the kind of thinking that the *man-child embodies for the world to see.

Speaking of the man-child, it’s hard to imagine him debating in a civil manner. The article I read – which this post is largely based on – says the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention agreed “to argue without asperity, and to endeavor to convince the judgment without hurting the feelings of each other.” Hurting each other’s feelings? Asperity? (I had to look that one up: harshness of tone or manner.) From watching political debate on TV, I thought that was the goal. They do what I wouldn’t let 10-year olds do, i.e. interrupt each other, attack personally, and largely ruin the original intent of the event.

But perhaps debate isn’t worth much? Being a good debater, does not make you a good president, and the reverse. But the author of this article views debate with the highest possible regard: “Debating, like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government.

This article said many other good things. You should read it. But it goes on too long and doesn’t answer its main question: how should candidates—and voters—argue about politics? I was dearly looking forward to an answer to that question. Perhaps I’ll learn on Monday? I can only hope.

*The Republican candidate is so repugnant to me that I prefer to leave his name unwritten. Henceforth, he will be the man-child.

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