Jill Lepore on Presidential Debating


Check out Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s long-form piece in The New Yorker.  Here are the money paragraphs:

The real trouble is deeper and wider. Political argument has been having a terrible century. Instead of arguing, everyone from next-door neighbors to members of Congress has got used to doing the I.R.L. equivalent of posting to the comments section: serially fulminating. The U.S. Supreme Court is one Justice short of a full bench, limiting its ability to deliberate, because Senate Republicans refused to hold the hearings required in order to fill that seat. They’d rather do battle on Twitter. Democratic members of Congress, unable to get the House of Representatives to debate gun-control measures, held a sit-in, live-streamed on Periscope. At campaign events, and even at the nominating Conventions, protesters have tried to silence other people’s speech in the name of the First Amendment. On college campuses, administrators, faculty, and students who express unwelcome political views have been fired and expelled. Even high-school debate has come under sustained attack from students who, refusing to argue the assigned political topic, contest the rules. One in three Americans declines to discuss politics except in private; fewer than one in four ever talk with someone with whom they disagree politically; fewer than one in five have ever attended a problem-solving meeting, even online, with people holding views different from their own. What kind of democracy is that?

And this:

How to argue is something people are taught. You learn it by watching other people, at the breakfast table, or in school, or on TV, or, lately, online. It’s something you can get better at, with practice, or worse at, by imitating people who do it badly. More formal debate follows established rules and standards of evidence. For centuries, learning how to argue was the centerpiece of a liberal-arts education. (Malcolm X studied that kind of debate while he was in prison. “Once my feet got wet,” he said, “I was gone on debating.”) Etymologically and historically, the artes liberales are the arts acquired by people who are free, or liber. Debating, like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government. The United States is the product of debate. In 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed “to argue without asperity, and to endeavor to convince the judgment without hurting the feelings of each other.” The next year, James Madison debated James Monroe for a congressional seat in Virginia. By the eighteen-thirties, debating classes were being offered as a form of civic education.

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “Jill Lepore on Presidential Debating

  1. I was in high school in the early 80s when some of my friends got their first computers. That was pretty exciting futuristic Sci-Fi stuff. When I finally got online in 1993, the Internet was an incredible resource for knowledge and meeting people around the world. Now with the rise of social media, it seems that the blessing of the Internet has now become a curse. The Fairness Doctrine was adopted as an FCC rule in 1949 but repealed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan’s pro-broadcaster FCC. This led to a seismic shift in reporting the news. News media went from presenting the facts with journalistic ethics and integrity to being run by huge conglomerate’s entertainment division demanding ratings over substance. The desire for ratings/hits drives media now to focus on the horserace while mostly ignoring the issues. Far too many people (across the political spectrum) seek out sources that share their worldview without challenging them to think about the issues. I’ve seen some pretty disturbing behavior by people I know when they post online that they wouldn’t do IRL. This race to the bottom in politics has proven to be fertile ground for a demagogue like Trump. Facts, truth and reality no longer matter in this alternate universe of sound bites and Tweets. It will be interesting to see how this election plays out and how much damage our Republic will suffer in the effort.


  2. The U.S. Supreme Court is one Justice short of a full bench, limiting its ability to deliberate, because Senate Republicans refused to hold the hearings required in order to fill that seat. They’d rather do battle on Twitter.

    When Historians Attack.

    The Senate is under no constitutional obligation to consent to who or what it finds unacceptable.


    Liked by 1 person

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