During the course of history, debate has been used to discuss and compare the ideas of two or more viewpoints, with the goal of persuading a listener to think a certain way.
The first public and popular debates in US history were between Abraham Lincoln and Stephan Douglas during their campaigns for an Illinois senate seat in 1858. These were widely popular across the country as the topic of slavery was being discussed at length, which, at the time, was an extremely contested matter.
The way the debates were structured between these two men was that one candidate received 60 minutes to speak, then the other received 90 minutes, with a 30 minute rejoinder after for the first speaking candidate.
The first televised debate between two presidential candidates came over 100 years later in 1960 between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy.
During the first televised debate, Nixon and Kennedy were fairly well matched when it came to the content and policy of what was spoken of. In fact, many people who listened to the debate on the radio thought the debate to be a draw, or even declare Nixon the victor. However, those who watched the debate on live television overwhelmingly believed the young, good looking, Kennedy to be the victor.
And therein lies the problem of modern debates.
As the years went on, debates became less and less about what a candidate said about policy, and more about their “performance” against the opponent.
Importance of “sound byte” phrases became more and more important. These phrases were designed so that they could be published and rebroadcast, showing either the strength or weakness of a candidate.
An example of the quintessential “sound byte” comes from an iconic line from then president Ronald Reagan, who was running for his second term.
Reagan’s old age had been called into question, as he was, at the time, the oldest president to ever hold office.
Before his opponent Walter Mondale could even bring up the age issue, Reagan quipped, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
While lines like this are entertaining and can be beneficial to the public perception of a candidate, they are ultimately counterproductive to the point of a debate, which is to compare two candidate’s policy and political position.
In recent years, this decay has become more and more of an issue, culminating in what we saw at the latest presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden.
People are quick to blame both candidates for the unarguable poor demonstration of statesmanship, but the fault lies equally in the current debate system.
Each candidate was supposed to be given 2 minutes to speak on very broad and expansive topics.
And people are surprised when there is little to no substance brought forward at these debates.
There should be a new system put in place that allows both candidates a long form platform to speak purely on policy, and if a debate is necessary, then given adequate time to retort the opposing points.
This would create a much more educated and fair-minded voting population when it comes to election day, as well as reduce the divisive nature of the debate stage as it stands today.
While yes, the debate last night was difficult to watch, with neither candidate leaving voters impressed, we as media consumers must take partial responsibility for creating today’s system of “circus debate” and strive to value the content and policy over the showmanship of a presidential candidate.