Tonight’s Presidential debate follows a pretty standard format: Question, answer and rebuttal. This sounds like a good format: It’s supposed to allow candidates to make their points and counterpoints while showing viewers how they differ on important issues. However, if you’ve ever watched a televised Presidential debate, you know things will likely devolve into pre-programmed, off-topic mudslinging and personal attacks that will likely just reinforce everyone’s predispositions on all things politics.
And that’s no good. That just angers people, divides them, and undermines discourse. Here at Made Man, we’re always looking for the gentleman’s approach. So we asked some debate coaches to weigh in on how debates are supposed to go.
Danny Cantrell, Director of Debate at Mt. San Antonio College Forensics and former Executive Secretary of the National Parliamentary Debate Association, has the following to say.
“Ideally, debaters are supposed to be informed, reasoned advocates, who are able to explain complex ideas in simple ways for their audience,” he tells us.
“Successful academic debaters know the issues and are able to differentiate their position from their opponent.”
So what about how presidential candidates attack one another rather than answer questions?
“From what I’ve seen in previous political debates, demeaning an opponent would quickly lose the student the debate,” says Cantrell.
“We always strive for our students to be courteous while debating. While an audience may love the debaters attacking each other personally [and] it may make great TV, we as the audience gain very little from seeing debaters attack each other rather than positions. We may learn who can hurl the best insult, but not what a future president can do for our country.”
So how should the debate go in a perfect world?
“Ultimately, I’d focus on what the goal of the debate should be—informed voters. The debaters should inform us of their own positions, point out differences in their opponent’s position, and persuade us that their perspective is best for the country. The voters gain the most from details—not generic platitudes or insults.”
We then talked to Rick Wall, Speech and Debate Instructor at LA’s Heschel Day School, to see how he teaches young people the ins and outs of debate.
Sometimes it seems that Presidential candidates are making stuff up. Is that allowable in high school debate?
“Citation of sources is usually required,” explains Wall. “The highest standards of personal and intellectual integrity are also expected of the debaters. The creation of false information and unethical behavior are frowned upon, and grounds for disqualification.”
What about when they get argumentative?
“Brief argumentative interruptions are permitted when the opponent has made a false or misleading statement. In a debate, judges have more authority than the moderators of our presidential debates. Judges have the right to disqualify any debater for extreme ‘evidence violations.’ This could lead to loss of the debate or total disqualification of the debater and their removal from the stage.”
What about when they keep interrupting one another?
“In a high school debate, the judges have much more authority and power to correct errors that the debaters have made. Debaters are allowed to interrupt, but it must be a justifiable interruption in the eyes of the moderator. Debates are to be civil, but energy levels can become high and excited, yet shouting is strictly forbidden. Shouting over your opponent without positive additions to debate topics could lead to expulsion.”
And how do you feel about truthiness in debates?
“The importance of truthful facts is the key to a good debate, but as a famous quote goes, ‘Liars figure, figures lie.’ Facts can be manipulated into a gray area. This is where the true debaters’ skills come into play. Slipping through the gray area, often districting or disrupting your opponents train of thought is a tactic that can work but often backfires.”
While all of the above sounds great, even a utopian look at how we wish Presidential debates will go, we’ll have to live with what we get. In fact, when it comes to facts, it turns out that Lester Holt, tonight’s moderator, has been told that he is not supposed to fact check the candidates. It’s now a written rule that he should not point out if either candidate is saying something that isn’t true, so you’ll just have to do the googling on your own.