As someone who has tried to say as little about the 2016 political campaign as possible , I have nonetheless found that those around me are at least waking up to the political campaign for all of its horrors. Among the horrors of this particular election are the debates between the two candidates. The first debate was last night and it was not as good as Lincoln-Douglas , that’s for sure, nor even as good as Nixon-Kennedy. In thinking about this, it may not be kind to compare our contemporary debates with what was perhaps the greatest debate in political history. There are few debates, even for those of us who greatly enjoy debates, that can stand the comparison with Lincoln and Douglas. In many ways, this is to be expected, but if we must lament that our own leaders are not up to that level, neither are we at the level of the audiences that showed up in droves to listen to the two of them debate each other in 1858 in Illinois. If we wish to make fun of our own political leadership, perhaps it is time to learn some surprising lessons from the Lincoln-Douglas debates that are surprisingly relevant to our own contemporary situation, even if it makes us want to weep.
Although it is widely recognized that the current political race is between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton, there are many people would be at pains to remind us that there are more people in the race. Online I have been treated to a great many advertisements for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, who seeks to remind us that he is the only adult in the race and often polls at present close to 10% or so, and Green candidate Jill Stein manages to poll around 2% or so, enough to pull a Nader and give Trump a close win in some states, perhaps, like Nader did for Bush in Florida in 2000. So too in 1858 there were more than just Lincoln and Douglas competing for the Senate in Illinois that year. Although we may forget it, there was a third party challenge to Douglas that year from a Democrat who supported the president, James Buchanan, against Douglas. Of course, that third party challenge was not able to get into the debates, as Lincoln and Douglas agreed to a debate on terms that focused the attention on the two of them and denied the National Democrat challenge the opportunity to compete against Douglas from the right and allow Lincoln to have another person on the stage to tag team with in opposition to Douglas. In this, our contemporary political candidates are not so different from Lincoln and Douglas in wanting to consider themselves alone to be viable candidates.
One of the most just complaints that could be made about the two candidates last night was that neither of them could stay on topic and both of them wanted to pivot as quickly as possible to their own talking points without answering the question asked by the ineffectual moderator. Perhaps Trump and Clinton are simply jealous of the freedom that Lincoln and Douglas had to do the same thing. There was no moderator between Lincoln and Douglas to ask the two of them questions, as instead one speaker would have a full hour to talk about whatever he wanted, the second speaker would have a full hour and a half of rejoinder, and then the first speaker would have a half hour to close, alternating during the seven debates between the two. Both of these men had their own talking points, both of them had accusations they would use against the other to score points with the elusive moderates in the middle of the state as the two of them tried to play to their base in a campaign that was harshly segmented by population with a very narrow band that was actually in play between the two. The desire to focus on one’s own message, the avoidance of certain topics, and the geographical divide between two candidates is not something that is new to our own campaign–Lincoln and Douglas, when they debated, focused mainly on nasty personal attacks and race-baiting, something that is not very unfamiliar to contemporary political campaigns, and avoided a whole host of economic issues in order to focus on social issues as well as attempts to paint the other candidate as unacceptably patriotic or moderate to be electable. Not much has changed there either.
There is, however, a clear area of difference between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and our contemporary imitations. This difference exists both in the candidates themselves and in we as voters. In the mid-1800’s, the American public was particularly astute and knowledgeable in politics. This does not mean their political views were sound–witness the fact that millions of people followed the secessionists of 1860 to fight for one of the worst causes known to mankind, worse than almost any, except perhaps Hitler’s Germany, from a nation that was at least nominally a republic–it just means that they were interested in political matters and argued about them with a great deal of seriousness. These were audiences who could relish listening to two political maestros like Lincoln and Douglas debate each other for three hours probing for weaknesses and seeking to demonstrate themselves as statesmen of the first order. Our current crop of political leaders is hopelessly outmatched as far as their sophistication as political philosophers. And we as an audience are hopelessly outmatched because we would likely be bored if we were watching the Lincoln-Douglas debates, given that most of us could not stand to listen to three hours of sustained political discussion ourselves and follow what was going on in the least. And that is our loss–see what we have to choose from. Either Lincoln or Douglas would have been light years ahead of what we have to choose between. And so we laugh, because if we did not laugh we could only cry.
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