Ever since the fiasco of our first presidential debate on September 29, friends who know about my weekend hobby have been asking me, “What makes a good debate?”
I ought to know. I’m a debate judge.
Throughout the school year, I judge forensic debate competitions for high school students competing in tournaments in my part of New York.
So yes, I have a view on what makes a good debate — plus a few suggestions for what to watch for in tonight’s match between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic VP candidate Kamala Harris.
The art of debate goes back a long way. The Greeks did it, as did the Romans. So did the ancient Indians. British politicians do it in the Houses of Parliament. Religious Jews do it over the Talmud.
The style or format of debate I judge is called Lincoln-Douglas — LD, for short— inspired by seven famous debates in 1858 between Illinois Senate hopefuls Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. The two men met in different spots across the state to wrestle with issues mostly having to do with slavery.
Each debate lasted about three hours. One candidate would speak for 60 minutes, then the other spoke for 90 minutes, then the first got another 30-minute rejoinder.
Incredible as it now seems, thousands of people came to hear them go on, and on. According to the Chicago Daily News, as many as 10,000 people showed up for the final debate in Alton, Illinois on October 15, 1858.
To be clear, modern-day LD bears little resemblance to those drawn-out matches. Each debater gets just 13 minutes of speaking time. The entire debate lasts about 45 minutes.
But the basic concept of a structured argument, in which each side gets an allotted amount of time to deliver his or her version of the case, remains. So do a few core principles. We should use them as our criteria when we watch our own candidates debate.
Here’s three key qualities I’ll be looking for. You should look for them too.
Evidence-based arguments. In LD, there are specific rules about how to introduce arguments and support them with evidence. You state your facts. You present information from accepted sources of authority, and you cite your sources to support your arguments. You don’t just make stuff up.
Clash of ideas. LD debaters just call it “clash.” It’s how debaters engage with and challenge their opponents’ ideas. A successful debate must have “good clash.” Every key point must be considered and addressed by the opponent, a strong, point-by-point interlocking of ideas. If an opponent fails to “clash” with a major point, that person loses the debate.
Civility. Debate is meant to be a civil engagement. Make no mistake, it’s a fiercely-fought competition. Debaters should be assertive, even aggressive, in laying out their frameworks, presenting their ideas, challenging their opponents. It can be rough and tumble. But in LD, manners matter.
At a tournament a couple years ago, I judged in favor of a young woman whose presentation was not quite as strong as her opponent’s. But her opponent made the unpardonable error of mocking her in the middle of the debate. When he didn’t care for a point she was making, he condescendingly rolled his eyes and snickered. That’s out of bounds.
Another time, I awarded the highest debate points possible — very seldom given — to a young woman who displayed remarkable grace and generosity in helping her opponent. He was a less-experienced debater. At one point he completely lost his mental focus, got flustered, and announced he wanted to drop out and forfeit the match.
She wouldn’t let him. I watched in amazement as she patiently, methodically walked him through the remaining stages of the debate, coaching and encouraging him to stay in until the end. She handily won the debate — that much was obvious. But for her extraordinary good sportsmanship, I awarded her the highest number of points, which I’d never given before, and not since.
There is no place for mudslinging, misinformation, mean-spirited attacks, and constant interruption in debate. The American public deserves better.
So do young people, who are forming their ideas about the importance of intellectual rigor, exchange of ideas, fair play, and decency.
The presidential and vice-presidential debates are a time-honored part of our election process. But when the candidates fail to live up to high standards, when we fail to hold them accountable, we destroy one of our most valuable tools for collaborative problem solving, generation of new ideas, and education of the electorate.
(Photo: Gage Skidmore)
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