The Book Club

Why Are Presidential Debates So Dreadful?

Mark Oppenheimer, age 14, competes at the World Debate and Public Speaking Championships

Dear Michael,

Is this an argument about styles of debate or parts of Massachusetts? I can’t believe I almost ceded the grittiness ground to a boy from Updike country, and I am glad you honorably conceded that I am the one with the true street cred, being from Springfield, birthplace of basketball.

Look, I had thought I’d conceded that parliamentary debate can be exploited by b.s. artists, and I was hoping you would concede that there is something gruesome about the extreme speed-talking of high-level policy debate. As it turned out, I think you concede too little—I do not believe that “eloquent speaking is actually critical to success in policy debate”; by definition, talking so fast people can’t understand you is not eloquence—and I fear I conceded too much.

Because parliamentary debate is not that bad! It is so rare in the United States that it is hard to find YouTube examples of it (the college version, practiced by Stanford, Chicago, and much of the Ivy League, is pretty weak tea, because it’s practiced largely by former policy debaters). So maybe just take a look at some clips from the European Universities Debating Championships. (This one, from Newcastle in 2009, featuring an Oxford debater in a round with Oxonians and Israelis, will do.) The idea is to sound like speakers in Parliament or, yes, our idealized image thereof: informed, urbane, funny.

Such debaters may not have deeply researched one question (in the Newcastle debate, immigration), but they need good general knowledge, perhaps from the Economist or the the Guardian, or from having studied hard in school. They sound like citizens of the world. And, actually, that is how the best debaters prevailed in my high-school league: We read newspapers, we were nerdy by nature, we were good talkers. But no, we had not spent summers in intensive debate camps.

Not that there is anything wrong with debate camps, but this gets to a deep conflict that we may as well bring to the surface. You think it’s OK for debate to be a hermetic world, where only insiders can judge it. You ask, “Should a layperson be allowed to score a skater’s triple axel at the Olympics?” But I am not sure that makes your point, since lay people can see why the best are so good, and what’s more, they find them beautiful to watch, even if only professional judges catch the finer points. The best policy debaters, by contrast, are often the least appealing to the average person. I can’t think of any other sport of which that is true.

But you are right: My vision of debate is that it not involve triple axels. I want it to be an activity that attracts talkative kids who need an extracurricular outlet for their wordiness: the story I tell about myself in Wisenheimer. Debate shouldn’t be signing up for a cult. And while I take your point that policy debate scales up and down pretty well, and that it can be very fulfilling to be a low-level, mediocre policy debater, I still think that its current bizarre form must turn off kids who would gravitate toward debate that is recognizably, you know, debate.

As it happens, the National Forensic League has similar intuitions, which is why almost 10 years ago it started Public Forum: two-on-two researched debate, like policy debate, but with topics that change monthly. I think it strikes a nice balance. Also, Public Forum judges are often laypeople. Smart laypeople, one hopes: At this year’s national championships, I was a final-round judge, and so was the ACLU’s Nadine Strossen. The idea is that debaters should have to convince laypeople like us, too. From what I understand, Public Forum is now the most popular NFL debate event.

We definitely agree on one thing: American political speech is dreadful, and I did not mean to imply that parliamentary debate should prepare us for that. But look, it’s policy debate that has been training our future politicians for the past century. One (minor) reason we tolerate such bad presidential debates is that we have a weakened culture of eloquence in our schools (and our Congress, etc.). An unrepentantly hermetic high-school debate world may not be the cause, but it isn’t the cure. Still, I try to be optimistic that someday our best debaters might be as good as middling kids trained at the top Canadian debate schools. I hope you’ll join that fight.

By the way, I concede that litany of former NFLers have made it big in the law. But one of my former parliamentary partners wrote Snakes on a Plane. As Ben Stiller once asked, “Can you deal with that?”

OK, my eight minutes—I mean my 800 words—are up.

Using some of his allotted prep time,

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