The Lost Art of Political Debate

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“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” President Kennedy’s words were aimed at the World War II generation, but as Millennials, we watched the month-long fanfare surrounding the anniversary of his assassination through a different lens. Although our generation too has been “tempered by war,” and “disciplined by a hard and bitter peace,” we do not share the hopes, dreams, and frustrations of that bygone era. Kennedy bequeathed us a different legacy. 

From his inaugural address, in which he announced the passing of the torch, to “Ich bin ein Berliner,” American political rhetoric has been indelibly stamped by a man who held the nation’s highest office for just over one thousand days. But in the years since, the nature of political speech has also been profoundly transformed by the image and the sound bite. The famous televised debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon is remembered primarily for heralding this new era. Ironically for us, to watch this event today is not to see the beginning of something new, but the loss of something old and precious: the art of political debate.

In the Kennedy-Nixon match-up, we see on display two statesmen going toe-to-toe on the merits of differing political ideologies. Kennedy asserts: “the question before us is which point of view and which party we want to lead the United States.” Nixon then says that he differs from his opponent in how the country ought to move forward: “Where we disagree is in the means that we would use to get the most out of our economy.” It was not a matter of each candidate convincing listeners – and television viewers – that he possessed the correct set of "facts," but rather convincing them that he had the right vision for the country, given the facts. 

Today a candidate is almost tainted by party affiliation; having a political ideology is a drawback. In 1960 things were different. Kennedy says explicitly: “The question really is, which candidate and which party can meet the problems the United States is going to face in 1960.” Neither man shies away from such an affiliation, but embraces it as a launch pad for propounding his political vision. Not so today.

Contemporary political debates are overburdened with statistics that purportedly speak for themselves, but which few remember and even fewer believe. These are then "fact checked" by outlets whose biases are well known, and who yield predictable results. As the late Christopher Lasch once put it: “candidates rely on their advisers to stuff them full of facts and figures, quotable slogans. … Only ideas are missing from their arsenal.” Facts are safe and quotable, whereas ideas are risky and sometimes complex. 

By appealing to facts both sides appear to transcend ideological bias. You can argue with a viewpoint, but not, ostensibly, with facts. Politicians present themselves as competent and objective bureaucrats. But a statesman is not a bureaucrat, nor are politics about objectivity. Politics are a matter of norms and values, what we ought to do, given the facts. 

Politicians today apparently believe having no ideology is a boon, if not a necessity. In the second presidential debate of the 2004 election, Bush “accused” Kerry of being a liberal. Kerry then denied the appellation: “But look, what's really important … is the president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around.” As if the 2004 election were not a matter of choosing between different visions for the country. It is an odd, if not self-deluded, political culture in which a candidate can be “accused” of adhering to his own party’s ideology.

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