Professor Bryan Garsten, “The Sorry State of American Debate,” The Wall Street Journal
The upcoming face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will just be a TV spectacle. Real debate takes place in governing (or at least used to)
The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is only days away. What can we hope for? A revealing gaffe, a zinger that hits home, a flash of true spontaneity or a glimpse of the real character of the candidates—these seem to be the most anyone is hoping for, and more than we are likely to get.
Debates, at their very best, are the diamonds of democratic politics—crystal clear in argument, sparkling with wit, free from the discolorations of petty self-interest and shaped to focus light on the great issues of the day. But diamonds are rare, and no one is expecting a jewel on Monday night. The problem isn’t only that our candidates are lackluster, tempting as that explanation may be. Nor does the fault lie mainly in the quality of the questions or the skill of the moderator. The forum itself is flawed. How many ways are there to say, “Vote for me”? That line will always be more advertisement than argument.
The first televised presidential debate, starring John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, aired 56 years ago on Sept. 26, 1960. People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched on TV thought Kennedy won, and the election was so close that the TV factor might have made a difference. But should it have? Did viewers learn something from the grainy, flickering black and white images on their tiny TVs that was really relevant to the question of which policy or person was best for the country?
The Kennedy-Nixon debate garnered mixed reviews, including severe criticism from establishment figures. The journalist Edward R. Murrow called it “a puny contribution, capsuled, homogenized, perhaps dangerous in its future implication.” The historian Henry Steele Commager responded with an essay entitled, “Washington Would Have Lost a TV Debate.” “The present formula of TV debate,” he remarked, “is designed to corrupt the public judgment and, eventually, the whole political process. The American Presidency is too great an office to be subjected to the indignity of this technique.” Though the televised debates returned and eventually became a regular part of the campaign, it is hard to think of even one that stands out as a model of informed and informative discourse.
During most campaign cycles, someone will write an essay comparing the disappointing pettiness of modern debates to the great Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, a series of daylong exchanges in various towns around Illinois during the contest between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for a Senate seat. (Lincoln lost.) Whereas in modern televised debates, a candidate often has just 90 seconds for an answer, those debates gave each speaker 90 minutes for a single response. Audiences stood all day in the late summer sun to listen to intricate arguments about matters of national importance, such as the extension of slavery into the western territories. Our attention spans on the couch at home don’t compare very well.
But even the Lincoln-Douglas debates left a lot to be desired. They brought out vices in both candidates: Lincoln spun out an elaborate conspiracy theory about the spread of slavery, Douglas moralized self-righteously, and both pandered energetically to the crowds. The architecture of some of Lincoln’s greatest thoughts is visible in his remarks, but he also stooped low, assuring a crowd in Charleston, Ill., in the part of the state closer to the South, that he did not believe that African-Americans should be “voters or jurors” or “intermarry with white people.” As for Douglas, his case for “popular sovereignty” in each state merely dressed up the extension of slavery into the territories as a matter of principle.
Traditionalists at the time reacted to these debates in much the same way that Murrow and Commager later responded to the Kennedy-Nixon debate—as a scandal and an affront to the dignity of our institutions. “The spirit of the Constitution is being violated in Illinois,” wrote the editors of the Union, a Washington, D.C. newspaper. In those days, state legislatures, not the people at large, were responsible for electing senators, and the point of that arrangement, the Union reminded its readers, was to “place the selection of a Senator beyond the reach of the maddening issues of the hour.” “The whole country,” the paper wrote, “is disgusted with the scene” in Illinois.
From that traditional perspective, the proper setting for political debate was thought to be the institutions of government themselves, not the campaign trail. Legislatures and parliamentary assemblies had evolved over centuries to encourage substantive discussion of concrete policy choices and to reduce the danger of demagoguery.
Lincoln’s own favorite political oratory came not from campaign stumping but from congressional debate. He loved Daniel Webster’s famous “Second Reply to Hayne,” which was delivered on the floor of the Senate in 1830. Sparked by a proposal to limit the sale of federal lands in the western territories, the debate quickly turned into an impassioned discussion of whether the national government was a creature of the states or a direct creation of the whole American people.
Sen. Robert Hayne of South Carolina made the case for the priority and independence of the states. Daniel Webster, young but poised and a polished speaker, put forward a vision of a great nation united by modernized roads and infrastructure and fortified by New England’s manufacturers. Protecting that manufacturing sector with high tariffs on imports from Europe was one of Webster’s immediate goals, but the debate explored how this policy would affect various parts of the country and linked the issue with questions of sectional politics, national strategy and constitutional principle. Webster helped Americans to imagine the nation that Lincoln would eventually fight to preserve.
Admirers of the Webster-Hayne debate often praise its most famous lines, such as Webster’s memorable peroration. Hayne had worried that national unity would threaten the states’ liberty. Webster’s final line was a succinct answer: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”
But one turn of phrase—a tweet, basically—cannot capture what was special about Webster’s speech, or about Hayne’s. The real strength of the debate lay in the power and clarity with which both sides elaborated the complex arguments behind their different positions, allowing listeners to enter into each point of view and understand it from the inside. John Quincy Adams, the former president, wrote to Martin Van Buren that the debate was “the most important one that has taken place since the existence of the government. The two doctrines are now before the nation.”
Webster’s contribution has often been compared with that of Edmund Burke in England about 50 years earlier. Burke’s speeches in Parliament, like Webster’s in the Senate, became models of eloquence for generations of aspiring politicians and students. Like Webster, Burke did his best work in the context of particular legislative debates. He defended the desire for independence of the American colonists, pleaded for humane treatment of his native Ireland, predicted the worst excesses of the French Revolution, and excoriated the East India Company and colonial managers for their corrupt administration of India.
If Webster’s reply to Hayne offers an example of how to debate protectionism with more depth than we have heard lately, Burke’s speech in support of the India Bill of Charles James Fox in 1783 offers an example of how to debate the proper oversight of large corporations. Burke argued that the East India Company had violated the terms of its corporate charter and should be made to cede control over its operations in India to two commissions appointed by Parliament. He thus urged regulation of a company that had enjoyed nearly unlimited autonomy in its operations abroad.
The moral and psychological subtlety of Burke’s case for reigning in that particular corporate excess dwarfs anything in our own public discourse. Instead of resorting to populist commonplaces, Burke explored the corrupting effects that working for the company in India was having on Britain’s best and brightest. Young men arrived in India and were promptly given vast political and economic power with little oversight. They drank “the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it,” and then, Burke warned, they brought their newly acquired habits of imperial brutality back to England with them. These men, Burke told the House of Commons, “marry into your families; they enter into your senate.” His arguments carried the chamber but could not overcome the king’s influence in the House of Lords. He and his party ultimately lost the debate, but his speech remains an example of what debate can be.
If we are looking for exemplary debates, we should also look behind Burke and Webster to the classical models they would have studied in school—above all, Demosthenes and Cicero. These were the great orators, respectively, of democratic Athens and republican Rome. Plutarch had paired them in his “Parallel Lives,” which was an obligatory part of a liberal education. Burke’s long campaign to impeach Warren Hastings for his corrupt management of India owed much to Cicero’s first speech in 70 B.C. against Verres, a corrupt Roman governor of Sicily.
As for Demosthenes, his speeches warning the Athenians of the growing strength of Philip II of Macedon in the fourth century B.C. had a furious, anxious power that comes across even today and even in translation. Simple in style, with little rhetorical ornament, Demosthenes’ sentences concentrated the force of his mind into a few words, as a good punch concentrates the body’s force into the inch between two knuckles. He was not running for office; he was pressing his fellow lawmakers to act.
Examples like these remind us that public debate at its best is a part of governing, not of campaigning. Webster and Burke, Cicero and Demosthenes—all spoke in deliberative assemblies to a specific group of their fellow citizens who were empowered to decide together a particular law or course of action.
Their speeches were transcribed and published beyond the confines of the chamber to a much wider audience, but that was secondary; the immediate goal was to govern. The heyday of political debate in the U.S. lasted from the founding era through much of the 19th century, when arguments on the floor of legislatures directly informed decisions on policy. These deliberative institutions, whether local or national, focused debaters on particular questions and limited the audience they were addressing. Such settings imparted a natural discipline to the speeches given within them, encouraging substance.
Today public deliberation hardly ever takes place in our legislative assemblies, though sometimes a pretense is staged for the cameras. In the U.S., we have been at war in one theater or another for 15 years, and yet Congress has not had a sustained debate about these conflicts since the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the U.K. last spring, leaders declined to follow a centuries-old tradition of parliamentary debate and responsibility when making the most consequential choice of the country’s recent history, to leave the European Union. They preferred to stage debates in the enormous and amorphous “public sphere” that the media creates and that individuals dip into and out of through their devices.
In our own increasingly fractured public sphere, the Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that the second debate between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, on October 9, “will take the form of a town meeting, in which half of the questions will be posed directly by citizen participants.”
What exactly will these “citizen participants” participate in? They are offered roles in a television show. They will ask questions, as a reporter does, to help elicit responses that might inform the public. This can certainly be useful, but we should not let the language of “town meetings” and “participation” obscure the limitations of the forum. One thing that the staged presidential debates cannot offer is a reminder of what debating sounds like when it is actually a part of self-government.
Years ago, when I lived in Williamstown, Mass., I attended a real town meeting to discuss the municipality’s annual budget. Citizens did not pose questions; they made arguments. A youth program had been cut, and townspeople argued pro and con and then voted. The program was saved, with funds shifted from elsewhere. No one offered oratory for the ages, but it was a good debate, full of clear, forceful, responsible arguments. Demosthenes would have been proud.
In the history of democratic societies, it was the intense pressures of governing together that occasionally compressed the sand of ordinary political speech into a gem or two of public oratory worth saving. We have mostly let public debate float free from the pressures of our governing institutions these days. We should not be surprised that we do not produce diamonds.
Mr. Garsten is professor of political science and the humanities at Yale University and the author of “Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment.”
The Wall Street Journal