The Lost Art of The Debate:
How Today's Debates Teach Cynicism and Relativism

Gene Edward Veith

On October 16, 1854, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debated in Peoria, Ill. Neither was a candidate for president at the time; it would be four years before they ran against each other for the U.S. Senate. But they were already debating the issues facing their state and their country.

It started at 2:00 p.m. and Mr. Douglas spoke for three hours. When it was Mr. Lincoln's turn, he said that he would need at least as much time to respond, and then Mr. Douglas would need time for his rebuttal. He proposed that everyone go home for dinner and come back for the rest of the debate. The audience—consisting of pretty much the whole community—agreed. After they came back, the debate went on for four more hours.

In 1858, the Lincoln–Douglas debates had a faster–paced format: Mr. Douglas would speak first, for an hour; then Mr. Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply. Then Mr. Douglas would have a half–hour for a rebuttal.

By all accounts of the Lincoln–Douglas debates (a good one can be found in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death), ordinary Americans—down to the lowliest farm boy—turned out as part of their participation in their own self–government. The crowd could get boisterous, with applause and catcalls, but they were able to follow complex, sophisticated discussions with rapt attention.

In contrast, in today's presidential debates, each candidate has two minutes to make his case, with rebuttals and answers measured in seconds instead of hours. The format never allows time to develop a coherent argument or to answer fully an opponent's charges. Both candidates know that image, not truth, is the real issue. How they come across—not what they say—is what really matters to the media and to the American public. To score points, they must avoid gaffes, score zingers, and, above all, seem presidential.

Pundits attempt the ultimate micro–poll in actually charting a focus group's reactions as the debate takes place. On a graph, we can see opinions rising with good lines and falling when the candidate "goes negative." After the vice–presidential debate, which actually did involve some high–level discussion of the issues, just about all the CNN focus group wanted to talk about was "Mr. Lieberman's smile," how relaxed and confident Mr. Cheney was. Above all, the focus group—representing a culture in which all ideas have to be seen as equally valid and in which the only moral absolute left is tolerance—appreciated how neither candidate was excessively "negative" about the other person.

The decline of the art of debate can also be seen in our schools. "Disputations" once played an important part in the great Christian universities of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Scholars sharpened their intellects by having to defend their positions against their peers and against faculty members. Disputations on different topics forced them to apply the liberal arts of logic (to prove their case) and rhetoric (to present it effectively). Such debates were ways to think through important issues. Luther's 95 Theses were a challenge to a theological debate.

If you go to a high–school or college debate tournament today, you are likely to find little attention to measured reasoning or rhetorical eloquence. Instead, debaters speak as fast as they can (to stay under the time limits) with arguments consisting mainly of isolated statistics (since numbers are considered more factual than logical chains of thought). Worse, debaters must prepare to argue for both sides of any issue, and they do not know the position they will have to take in the debate until they have to perform. If they are debating, say, the morality of capital punishment or euthanasia or abortion, their own convictions may have nothing to do with it.

This may be a good way to train lawyers, but it teaches that thinking is nothing more than an arbitrary game, a matter of scoring points rather than reaching truth. One side really is as valid as the other, and your own beliefs, being nothing more than a private interior opinion, are not allowed to get in the way. Depth of conviction and intellectual honesty—the refusal to advocate what one does not in fact believe—can have little place in a typical debate tournament.

Debate practiced this way teaches not logic or rhetoric but intellectual cynicism. And that cynicism—which in turn breeds relativism and the disconnect between truth and opinion—is what makes our culture incapable of conducting or even sitting through a Lincoln–Douglas debate.


Used by permission of World magazine. Copyright 2000.