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Commentary: Changing American Political Debates

By Ben Voth, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

The season of formal political debates has once again come to an end, providing a good opportunity to examine its function in American civics and as a global model. Debate is the lifeblood of democratic civics. The social capacity to challenge ideas and draw personal conclusions in relation to those challenges is vital to premises of American governance and much of the governance around the world.

Understanding this robust value of debate, there remain fair criticisms of the current process - particularly as they relate to the Presidential debate process. Debates in any setting require the existence of four criteria: 1) a topic for debate, 2) assigned advocates for each side, 3) time limits for speeches, 4) a judge. Any adjustment to the process should keep these basic premises of argumentation and debate in mind. There were some abuses of general debate practice which could be remedied in the future.

The media continues to be a problematic feature in these debates. The essence of the problem may have been most clear when media moderator Tom Brokaw complained, "you're getting in the way of my script." At the end of the debate, Brokaw was trying to read from a monitor at the back of the stage, blocked by handshakes between the concluding candidates. In far too many instances, the debaters seem to be getting in the way of an agenda from the media, and a strong majority of the American electorate would like to hear more from the candidates and less from the media. These media agendas include, selecting questions suited to their own biases and drawing attention to their own roles in the contests rather than the debaters. Gwen Ifill appeared on Oprah Winfrey to show solidarity with her political commitments and help draw further attention to her new book promoting Barack Obama. Oprah's decision to invite Gwen Ifil and to not invite Governor Sarah Palin until after the election communicated the bias most Americans are familiar with in media outlets like Oprah. Ifill showed bias in the debate by providing ten instances of the last word for Senator Joe Biden while giving Governor Palin five opportunities. Having the last word is an important strategic advantage in debates. Tom Brokaw filtered down thousands of questions from Americans down to questions he personally found most interesting. Given the large number of questions, it would be impossible for a moderator to avoid bias in picking questions.

In contrast, collegiate debates take place in a manner that features debaters more than judges and moderators. Allowing the candidates to follow something close to a Lincoln/Douglas style debate with limited speech time and cross examination would provide more direct clash of ideas and less media filtering. In high school and college debate, cross examination is limited to a three minute period in which debaters directly question one another without outside intervention. Many commentators complained that candidates such as Governor Palin were not answering questions in the current debate format. Palin and others would ignore questions in favor of their own talking points or rebuttals they sought to previous claims. Direct cross examination rather than mediated cross examination reduces this problem and also removes the risk of biased moderators slanting the process or over correcting for their perceived biases.

Candidates could take turns advocating their respective positions. For example a debate topic might be: Resolved: Senator John McCain's economic policy will be better for America. That could be the subject of a debate wherein Senator Obama would have time to directly focus on McCain's policy. In the next debate, the topic could be Senator Obama's economic policy and Senator McCain would have an opportunity to rebut his claims about economic policy. These questions would be central to the entire debate on a given evening.

Debate is a vital alternative to the now dominating mode of political argument - partisan rallies. Both partisans were venturing across the boundaries of civility because of their increasingly insular conversations. Broadening the number of debates would increase the potential understood idealism of candidates and diminish the reliance on echo chamber rallies that cater too much to the base of each party. The American system of political debates is a great one and a vital global message in and of itself. It is however, worthy of profound and further improvements to make our civic body even more healthy.

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of Communication and Director of Speech and Debate programs at Southern Methodist University.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.