Third Party & Independents Archives

Bush/Kerry = Lincoln/Douglas?

Recently John Kerry challenged George W. Bush to a series of monthly debates. He made this challenge in Quincy, Illinois with the goal of recalling the famous Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates of 1858. While I think its an important civic exercise to have the sort of televised debates that we have become accustomed to in the TV era, this reference to the Lincoln-Douglas debates illustrates exactly why presidential debates today are rather meaningless in terms of real engagement of the issues.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were grand affairs with a complicated discussion of the issues of slavery, popular sovereignty and the proper principles of American government (although, admittedly, there was about one and a half debates were Lincoln and Douglas argued about corruption and the selection of the Illinois Senator several years earlier- so even these great statemen were not above mud-slinging politics). Each man would give an hour long speech followed by an hour long rebuttal and would then the first speaker would be given another 30 minutes for a rejoinder. Today the “debates” are sound-bite fests, with those who are running for president of the most powerful country in the world speaking for only 1 and a half minutes on issues about which books can be written. The contrast is staggering.

While I hope Bush agrees to these debates with Kerry, nothing of substance will come of them- as nothing of substance has really come from any general election debate that I can remember. Modern debates are not remember for great rhetorical flourishes like when Lincoln pointed out to Douglas that “there could not be a right to do a wrong” and thus explained why slavery was not a legitimate option for even the majority of the people to make- modern debates are remembered when Reagan mocked Carter with “there you go again” or that Richard Nixon looked pasty on TV in 1960. While in 1858 the voters had no better entertainment than to see two great orators go at it, today, most Americans do not care to spend hours seeing politicians really delve into the issues- they decide who they will vote for by sound bites, news clips and quick-hitting adds (see the rise and fall of Howard Dean).

I am not criticizing Americans- many of them have busy lives and have limited time for enjoyment of their free time- if they do not share my love for intellectual debate, I cannot blame fault them. We get the kind of democracy we want and the American people do not want the sort of democracy that involves long speeches, complicated rebuttals and serious engagement of the issues. They want “Kerry will give the country to the terrorists” or “Bush hates the poor people and wants to give the country to the rich people”. So that is the kind of debate we will get and I wish John Kerry would not try to ahistorically import the idea that these proposed monthly debates will bare any resemblance to the great 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas.

(Historical Note: the Lincoln-Douglas debates were actually during a campaign for the Illinois state Senate in 1858. In 1860, there was no such debate because tradition dictated that presidential candidates be “above” politics and their supporters would give their stump speeches as the Candidates sat at home. Douglas actually broke this tradition in 1860 and campaign for himself, promising that his presidency election was the only way to keep the union united. Lincoln followed tradition and sat at home. The rest is history.)

Posted by Misha Tseytlin at March 15, 2004 6:41 PM