Deliberating the merits of political debates

October 13, 2022 7:00 am

Libertarian Lucy Brenton, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and Republican former state Rep. Mike Braun, from left, participate in a U.S. Senate Debate, Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in Westville, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool)

Take any candidate, any race, and make a personal pledge to learn more about them. It can be as easy as typing their name in a search engine and scanning the first several lines. The process takes little more than an internet connection, not much effort, not even accuracy as a misspelled surname can still generate accurate results as the computer recognizes and responds to human error.

We live in an era where information is so easily accessible, one might erroneously assume that it would be used. The political media has evolved in the last three decades, providing a 24/7 news cycle replete with constant headlines and ticker tape summaries and encompassing social media with outlets that allow users to “snap,” “tweet,” “post,” and “pin” all their political preferences and persuasions. 

The amount of information, the sources from which it stems and the mediums through which it is conveyed, has increased.  Political knowledge and engagement…generally have not.  Numerous studies (including Galston and Anson) confirm a willing ignorance among Americans, noting that the general increase in educational attainment of the population has failed to translate into greater civic competency; perhaps worst: those who know little about politics exude overconfidence and a false comfort in their understanding.

Simply put, despite the proliferation of political information, American voters are not necessarily any better informed.

The stage is now set, argumentatively and literally, for a political debate. Why do we still use this classic form of political deliberation? What value does it add? How does it differ from the literally thousands upon thousands of tidbits of information already floating in the abyss? 

Such questions are more than fair. Most students learn about important political debates in history such as Lincoln-Douglas or Nixon-Kennedy and could very easily write off this mechanism as an archaic tool best used when no other means to acquire information was available to voters.

Debates, however, provide a unique opportunity for both voters and candidates that cannot be replicated as effectively in any other format. They fulfill the promise of democracy that offers a certain level of equality of choice, allowing the candidates of major parties and sometimes those from minor parties to participate, providing structure and rules that guarantee a general equality of time, and offering to the voter an unfiltered, long-form view of the candidates competing for their vote.

Debates provide an invaluable public service, giving voters and campaigns alike the opportunity to engage and one of the rarest opportunities to do so in more than a 30-second television advertisement or a five-minute conversation with an unpaid college intern canvassing on the campaign’s behalf. These examples of outreach can be effective, but either is marred with shortcomings that only a debate can reveal. 

Paid media gives the voter a perfectly curated, perfectly scripted view of the candidate in the image and tone in which they want to be seen discussing the topics that they want in the way in which they want. Individual voter engagement experiences, like door-to-door canvassing and telephone calls, are regarded as highly effective but also require a tremendous amount of resources.  

Unlike either of these approaches, debates give candidates a substantial amount of free air time in which they must address voters’ questions, explain their visions and platform, and defend their positions and record. Candidates also get the rare opportunity to poke public jabs at their opponents and to thoughtfully persuade voters on their merits while deflating the opposition. 

For voters, tasking the candidates with addressing the voters’ concerns and interests on a wide range of topics gives them a full perspective that otherwise feels inaccessible to the electorate. Not all debates will be equally educational or informative; success is widely subjective but candidate participation, active moderation posing questions on various topics of interest to voters, clear and consistent rules offering equal time and opportunity to participations, and availability of the broadcast for its outreach to prospective voters are all critical to its objective.  

Debates educate and inform voters in a different way, through different means than any other medium in American politics.  Longer than a tweet, more substantive than an ad, debates embody democratic ideals that reaffirm their place in our election system.

Merrifield Wilson is set to moderate the U.S. Senate debate hosted by the Indiana Debate Commission Sunday night.

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Laura Merrifield Wilson
Laura Merrifield Wilson

Laura Merrifield Wilson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Indianapolis. She specializes in the study of political behavior, state and local government, and campaigns and elections. She earned her PhD, MA, and MPA from the University of Alabama and her MA and AB Honors from Ohio University. She is a regular political commentator and analyst.