What a debate is for

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In the world of politics, perhaps more than any other world, words do not come at a premium. Words are said, and said often. Words are spoken in support of a position, or against a position. Sometimes words are used ambiguously to avoid taking a position entirely. But words are never lacking, and the better the individual is at using those words to capture the popular sentiment of the people – at least the crucial minimal number of them needed to win – the more likely the individual is to win the election. Hence, the importance of using words wisely, and well.

But there is something different about a debate. Ask anyone who has competed in debate in school or at the university. While there are many different styles of debate, each with its own methods and rules—literally everything from Lincoln-Douglas debating to the Quaestiones Disputatae of medieval universities—there is something fundamental about debates that sets them apart from all other contexts in which public figures use words to persuade people: a debate makes two people who disagree confront each other using only words, and the winner is determined by the strength of the case they make.

Debate takes the art of presenting a persuasive speech (an art in and of itself) to a whole new level when two persuasive speakers are put together in a zero-sum game. Here, the debaters must be peers—observe why Elsa of Brabant could not debate Friedrich of Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin—and they must share the same question and topics. Then, arguments ensue and it is up to the hearers (or some subset thereof, such as pundits and commentators…) to determine which of the two was the most convincing.

Americans will have their final say about who was the most convincing Monday night—and in the following debates—on election day, which is the only day that ultimately will determine which vision of America we heard in the debates will be not just words, but reality.

But as we process this first of the debates, and determine what it might mean for that important decision lying before every American voter, we can appreciate the fact that at this point in the campaign trail, after so many words spoken in so many contexts—words sometimes later re-framed and sometimes denied—we have a setting where the two candidates for the highest office in our land come face to face, prior to all framing and interpretation, prior to all spin and all commentary, and offer us, the People, in a way that apples-vs-apples and oranges-vs-oranges reflects their own visions for the future for our country.

Will the two candidates actually carry out the things they promised? Will they be as good (or as bad) in the Oval Office as they appear on TV? We will only know for one of them. And which one of them it is will be, for many people, determined by these debates.

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