The Decline of American Political Discourse

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Dec 07, 2007 12:01 AM
The Decline of American Political Discourse

"The Lincoln-Douglas debates exemplified the oral tradition at its best. By current standards, Lincoln and Douglas broke every rule of political discourse. They subjected their audiences (which were as large as 15,000 on one occasion) to a painstaking analysis of complex issues. They spoke with considerably more candor, in a pungent, colloquial, sometimes racy style, than politicians think prudent today. They took clear positions from which it was difficult to retreat. They conducted themselves as if political leadership carried with it an obligation to clarify issues instead of merely getting elected. The contrast between these justly famous debates and present-day presidential debates, in which the media define the issues and draw up the ground rules, is unmistakable and highly unflattering to ourselves."

So wrote an astute observer of American politics and life named Christopher Lasch years before the presidential "debates" were drawing their questions from technological achievements like YouTube.

Last week's Republican presidential debate out of St. Petersburg, Fla., was more of an instant elimination contest. It might as well have been emceed by Donald Trump rather than an anchorman. It was a great debate the way a reality show is Shakespeare.

I use the term emcee, as in Master of Ceremonies, rather than moderator, advisedly. For the role of ringmaster in this kind of circus of superficiality is not to moderate the proceedings but to fire them up. His job is to put the participants through their paces and preferably on the spot. He's there to guard against any vestige of sustained thought marring the night's entertainment.

After watching this latest carnival styled a debate, it is hard to believe there was a time when leading American politicians cared less about winning a particular office than about swaying their listeners, perhaps even their opponent, to their point of view. Such a leader might even understand that, with great questions at stake, it was less important whether he won or lost than whether the principles he championed would prevail.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 set the standard for American political dialogue as the Union itself lurched from one crisis to the next, with secession and civil war in the wings. Technologically, those debates were primitive compared to our modern televised variety, complete with high-tech gizmos and instant polls. But in their old-style rhetoric, in their recurrent return to first principles, in their attempt to grapple with grave and pressing issues, or even find some way around them, Lincoln-Douglas made today's rhetorical exchanges look simple-minded.

In seven debates across the Illinois prairie, from August 21 to October 15, 1858, the great orator and statesman of his time, Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant of the U.S. Senate, faced off against a curious opponent. The other figure on the platform was almost a caricature out of the partisan press of the time: an improbably lanky country lawyer, an ex-congressman with an almost comically high-pitched voice and mountain-South accent not made for fashionable perorations, an ex-Whig who had suddenly reappeared on the scene as the candidate of a new, upstart party, an intrusive embarrassment who kept raising troubling questions that just would not go away.

From county seat to county seat, this improbable pair covered the thorniest and most complex issues - the existence of slavery in the land of the free, the preservation of the Union, the very meaning of the American experiment - at a length that would not be tolerated in our oh-so-advanced times. And they did so with a power and simplicity that makes a fascinating study even today, maybe especially today. (Who besides those who have to would read the transcript of a modern presidential debate the next day, let alone the next week?)

What a contrast Lincoln-Douglas makes with what we now call a presidential debate, which is more like a tawdry contest to see which participant's dignity can be destroyed soonest. There is little time to fully develop even a single line of thought in such a rapid-fire media event. There was something not just empty but degrading about the spectacle in St. Petersburg as the Republican candidates formed the usual line-up.

And yet there were saving moments even in this show. Especially when immigration and its discontents dominated the disjointed discussion. Everything seemed to quiet when the most soft-spoken of the usual suspects, an old Navy pilot named John McCain, explained rationally and sadly how our politicians, including himself, had failed the country on immigration. Others might be interested in fighting the problem; he just wanted to solve it.

But even as he spoke, John McCain seemed aware his was a voice in the wilderness. There was something so tired in his words, and around his eyes, as if he had explained this a thousand times before to no avail. As if he were saying: Is this what public discourse has come to in this country?

Another moment of light was provided by the preacher on the platform - another long-shot presidential candidate out of Arkansas. This year's is Mike Huckabee, who sounds anything but tired. As he's risen in the polls, he's become a prime target for the other candidates, which only seems to invigorate him.

At one point the Rev. Huckabee stood accused by the suave Mitt Romney, who looks every inch a president, of wanting to treat the children of illegal immigrants fairly. It seems Mike Huckabee had been for letting these kids compete for college scholarships with the classmates they'd gone to school with in Arkansas. Shocking. To which he responded: "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did."

And that was all he needed to say, for behind that statement of simple principle there was a whole range of biblical truths that this former governor and still preacher has absorbed and was now reflecting: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger. When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him but you shall love him as yourself. For one golden moment, the level of American political discourse had been raised, not lowered.

Even in a setting made to advantage the showy and mean, it's just hard to get the better of a man of one book. Especially if it's The Book.