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.


In the most recent presidential election, one might have expected to hear debates about the role and scope of the federal government in social and economic life, this being the underlying philosophical dispute. Instead, each candidate tried to justify his policies by referencing a “superior” set of facts. “Facts,” not ideas, drove the discussion. Accordingly, they attacked each other’s factual validity, rather than the validity of the political philosophies behind them. 

Consider one example. In the second debate, President Obama argued that his policies would lower the deficit. Governor Romney, in turn, presented himself as a more able accountant. In one exchange Obama says: “The cost of lowering rates … along with what he wants to do with changes in the tax code, it costs about $5 trillion … the math doesn’t add up … nobody who’s looked at it, that’s serious, actually believes it adds up.” Romney responds: “Of course they add up … how about $4 trillion in deficits over the last 4 years. That’s math that doesn’t add up.” 

By contrast, in 1960 we hear Kennedy make a strong case for government intervention, for example, in the case of farm subsidies. The nature of agricultural markets demands such action, Kennedy says. Nixon counters by saying that this is a bad idea given the effect it would have on food prices. The candidates then debate whether this type of government intervention is necessary for economic growth. Today such a debate would devolve into an argument about whose math doesn’t add up. 

For Kennedy and Nixon, the virtue of one's political views were not that they were factual, but that they expressed a superior political philosophy. Such discourse has a long legacy in America.

Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the Federalists’ vision of centralized government was grounded in the notion that his was the superior theory of government. In a famous exchange he accused John Adams of having “a disconcerting lack of faith in [his] fellow man,” while Adams replied: “Yes, and you display a dangerous excess of faith in your fellow man, Mr. Jefferson.”

And again, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we have unabashed representatives of two differing worldviews. Douglas begins: “… we are present here today for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles in issue between those parties and this vast concourse of people …” He goes on to lay out the history and differing principles of these two great parties.

This was as it should be; political candidates should have differing visions for the country. The purpose of political debate is to weigh the merits of each, to allow the people to choose the one necessary for their time.

We don’t mean to suggest that in some golden age American political debates were always harmonious and civil. Pitting one political scheme against another is necessarily contentious. A worldview can be wrong, insidious, or evil, and thus debate can be heated, even vitriolic. Many believed the political system of Jefferson’s era would not survive the election of a president from another political party; the political system of Lincoln’s era led to Civil War.

Our political system should continue to not only countenance but require that differing political ideologies have it out in full public view. To lose the art of political debate is to lose something essential.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In a world where any fact can be “Googled,” we would much rather have your opinion. Getting the facts right is necessary, but statesmanship requires something more. Kennedy had the facts at his fingertips, but he is fondly remembered today because he did offer something more, something intangible. To wit, he offered a more elevating, more inspiring vision, the ability “to dream of things that never were and ask why not.”  

As we enter a new election cycle, this Kennedy legacy is worthy of preservation.

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