What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


Are Presidential Debates Reality TV, Sunday Talk Show, Or Both?

The American Civic Rite Is Distinctive for Its Blend of Boisterous Theater and Genuine Substance

By Matthew Dallek
September 10, 2015

The first Republican presidential debate was a veritable blockbuster, with 24 million viewers tuning in last month. Its sequel next week at the Reagan Presidential Library in California may attract even more viewers curious about the large field of candidates and the possibility of a lively clash. But the more intriguing question is why were so many Americans in this age of digital communications willing to watch 10 men on a debate stage making mostly canned remarks, charges, and countercharges?

The question has no simple answers, but a good start is to think of presidential debates as a modern civic rite rather than simply as an exercise in internecine warfare. We now take it for granted, but the spectacle of candidates sparring verbally with each other as equals in pursuit of your support is a radically egalitarian concept.

Debates amount to job interviews for candidates, at which they are forced to answer our questions and prove themselves. As voters, we listen for substance, but also watch for body language and behavior, as you might in any other job interview. It’s hard for most of us to relate to what it must be like to be the commander in chief, or even to be an accomplished governor or senator running for the job. But we find it easier to relate to what it’s like to stand up there to make your pitch and debate your opponents, as countless high school debaters and Model U.N. participants can attest.

And we all look for those dramatic moments that take place when there is no script, such as Gov. Rick Perry’s inability in 2012 to recall the names of the three federal agencies he wanted to abolish, or what was considered Al Gore’s rudely impatient demeanor in a 2000 debate with George W. Bush. Such moments give politics a human dimension, making candidates seem flawed, real, and less cartoonish, even as debates provide plenty of comedic material for Saturday Night Live send-ups.

The era of the modern presidential debate dates back to the mid-20th Century. In 1948, Republicans Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey squared off over whether the Communist Party ought to be outlawed. Democrats Estes Kefauver and Adlai Stevenson debated in the primary in 1956, a sleepy encounter featuring few fireworks. The Kennedy-Nixon 1960 general election debates were said to have shown Nixon as smarmy as he sweated under the bright television lights. They became the most famous example of how debates supposedly can seal the candidates’ fates before the electorate, although there is little in the way of data to show that debates often sway many voters’ minds on Election Day. Ever since 1976, when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter sparred on stage, debates have been the required staple of our presidential campaigns, a tradition replicated and emulated in many other countries as well.

But debates were stitched into the DNA of American public life long before they assumed this role in presidential campaigns. Broadly defined, debates have been central to Americans’ own definition of what it means to live in a modern democracy. The nation was established and shaped as a result of big debates about the proper distribution of power between empire and colonies, between federation and states, and between the sovereign and the individual. The Constitutional Convention was a debate about the future of slavery in the republic, states’ rights, and the mechanics and principles of democratic elections. The Federalist Papers offered impassioned arguments by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for the live debates that took place in most states around the question of whether or not to ratify the new constitution.

Debates were instrumental thereafter in resolving most crucial issues confronting the nation’s forbearers. Historian Todd Estes has described the Jay Treaty debate (whether to establish commercial links with England) in the mid-1790s as an argument pitched to the public, pitting Federalists against Jeffersonians in public rallies and on the floor of Congress. In the 19th century, debates in Congress, in the partisan press, and in town halls were how Americans hashed out deep-seated differences over such vexing questions as the Bank of the United States, territorial expansion, and the federal government’s role in national infrastructure.

Over time, debates replaced violent means of settling our differences, such as pistol duels and full-fledged battles. Debates should also be seen as an element in the orderly transition of power, an ideal that, while hardly always attainable (see the Civil War and the assassinations of political leaders in the 1960s) nonetheless retains a hold on the public. Thus debates have become imperfect civic rituals of conflict resolution. And, they make those who hope to lead Americans accountable to the voters, as opposed to heirs chosen by Divine Right.

There’s also this: American debates are distinctive for their blend of boisterous theater and genuine substance. This uneasy combination–coarse words and high-minded policy disputes–makes politics inspirational, accessible, and offensive to many Americans, all at the same time. Historian Lawrence Levine, in writing about the performance of Shakespeare’s plays in 19-century America, said something that’s also true of Americans’ relationship to political debates: “The theater in the first-half of the 19th century…was a kaleidoscopic, democratic institution, presenting a widely varying bill of fare to all classes and socioeconomic groups.” Then, as now, debates reflected tension between highbrow and low. In their most contemporary expression, debates offer Americans both live reality TV and serious assessments of the main issues of the day.

America’s most famous debates, pitting Abraham Lincoln against Stephen Douglas during the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign, fused bald, racist demagoguery with detailed arguments about slavery’s expansion into the western territories. As Allen Guelzo has observed in his study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the candidates engaged in personal attacks and misrepresented each other’s positions. Lincoln declared his opposition to the rights of African-Americans to vote, sit on a jury, and seek elective office. Douglas warned that, under Lincoln, white Americans would be required, as one newspaper reported, “to eat with, ride with, go to church with, travel with, and in other ways bring Congo odor into their nostrils.” Such blunt racist appeals co-existed with Lincoln’s and Douglas’ more reasoned discourse about the meaning of the Constitution, the immorality of slavery, and whether its westward expansion was permissible.

Richard Nixon’s campaign operative Roger Stone once said, “The biggest sin in politics is to be boring.” Debates require candidates not only to defend their positions, qualifications, and vision, but also to entertain and come across as someone voters can relate to, and will like. A good debate is part philosophical symposium, part comedic theater and part popularity contest.

The first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign delivered on all counts. Donald Trump certainly understands the demands of drama, while the exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul on spying, and the proper boundaries between civil liberties and a state determined to protect its people, was an entrée into a deeper debate about the proper balance between liberty and security in our post-Sept. 11 national security policies. In this sense, the first debate exemplified the seemingly contradictory, but fully complementary, strands in the American way of debates.

It’s small wonder, then, that millions of us will tune in again next week.

Matthew Dallek, an assistant professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.

Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Joe Mathews.

*Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Bourg.


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