I recently read Jonathan Ellis and Francesca Hovagimian’s op-ed (October 12, 2019), where they argued that debate competitions hurt the quality of American political discourse. They recycled the familiar point that competitive debaters are trained in an adversarial style of argument that opposes compromise and deliberation. I participated in nine years-worth of high school and college debate competitions, and I presently coach high school debaters while pursuing a history PhD at Northeastern University.
From this perspective, I struggle to believe that competitive debate competitions are to blame for polarized politics. The political world has always been polarized, for certain. Ellis and Hovagimian gave a “who’s who” of liberal and conservative figures, but each of them would have adopted their positions despite their debate experience. Steve Bannon would be the kind of white man to adopt the warped worldview of the alt-right, and Ted Cruz would have inevitably become Ted Cruz. Senator Warren, originally a Republican, became more progressive after witnessing injustices in bankruptcy courts; this happened when she was a law professor, long after being a debater.
People who have commented about debate—from outside or within—have offered contradictory criticisms of the activity. Recall the old point that competitive debating makes you a sophist, a contrarian with no convictions. And yet Ellis and Hovagimian are convinced that debating actually produces fundamentalists who do have convictions, extreme to the point of being uncontestable. Both of these cannot be true, or have some universal effect that debate has on every participant. My only qualm with debate was that the demands of preparing large quantities of evidence (which I very much enjoyed) left me little time for close reading, which I celebrate now as a PhD student. Debate competitions today are more the effect, rather than the cause, of changes in academia and our wider world. Both sophism and fundamentalism are problems with human nature that can be tackled with moral education and a dose of empathy, neither of which debate competitions can provide on their own.
I have two points which more precisely explain why debate competitions can improve our political discourse. The first is that televised presidential “debates” hardly live up to the name; they are more like press conferences. Many people, especially debaters, are dumbfounded that a candidate only has thirty seconds to respond to an opposing candidate’s take on a detailed policy question. During my junior year at Wake Forest University, we spent an entire season debating the merits and drawbacks of single-payer healthcare systems, and I cringe at the lack of depth that candidates bring to the healthcare “debates” on television. Even the Climate Town Hall on CNN, which I very much appreciated, could have benefited from a structured debate, where candidates (or scientists/economists agreeing to defend a candidate’s proposal) could go back-and-forth on different proposals. I have enough faith in the Town Hall viewers to believe they may have enjoyed an in-depth debate that inquired, for instance, whether a carbon tax would succeed. With more than 30 seconds to address an opposing viewpoint, the participants could employ international comparisons, economic studies, the best climate science, or historical anecdotes to support a well-reasoned position. This is what debates are meant to be, because debate is not a clash of soundbites.
My second and final point is that competitive debate does teach you to realize when you are wrong. Ellis and Hovagimian uphold Ethics Bowl as an ideal activity, but they overlook the benefits of technical, “flow-based” (rebutting every argument with much detail) competitions in Policy Debate and Lincoln-Douglas. In both activities, debate coaches tell their students to understand when they should openly concede that they are losing an argument they originally made, in order to tell the judge why they have won their side nonetheless. This process is actually more open-minded than a spirited discussion where people usually say “let’s agree to disagree” instead of admitting “this one point I made was nonsense, but my argument still stands.” Because our final speeches run less, sometimes much less, than ten minutes long, debaters know it is a losing battle to hold onto every argument until you die.
Imagine if political figures could admit that they were wrong, and refine their positions in an iterative process that makes our original convictions stronger for their logic, not for their intensity. Maybe our candidates and pundits, if they had debate experience, should come back to the competitions.