Bring back the Lincoln-Douglas debates!

An election is coming.  The country is deeply divided along ideological and economic lines.  Candidates have declared themselves and are fighting for advantage.  The voters, looking to the future, are following the campaign closely, and several debates are scheduled.

2020?  No.  2016?  Nope.  1858.

The campaign was for one of Illinois's seats in the U.S. Senate.  The incumbent was Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat.  Abraham Lincoln, part of the newly formed Republican Party, wanted to unseat him.  The parties were struggling to influence the state Legislature because, in those days, the legislatures selected United States senators.  The political backdrop was the deep national divide on slavery and whether it should expand into new territories as the country spread west.  The people viewed this campaign as a bellwether that could indicate whether the Democratic Party would be able to overcome internal disagreements for the 1860 presidential election (it failed, and put forward two candidates, Douglas and John C. Breckenridge) as well as other national issues.

Why is this relevant to 2024?  Because their debates offer an alternative to the modern format with its often biased moderators.

Compare this with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which my generation heard about in elementary school.

Lincoln and Douglas agreed to hold a series of seven debates, each in one of the nine Illinois congressional districts.  There were no moderators; just the candidates and the people attending.  The format was simple.  One candidate would speak for 60 minutes.  Then the other would speak for 90 minutes, and the first would have 30 minutes to reply.  As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four debates.

What might the modern format look like?  One method might use dual formats — one for the primary, where many candidates are trying to win the nomination, and another for the general election, in which there are only two, possibly three, candidates.

The primary format could simply rotate the live microphone among the candidates.  Each candidate gets to state an opening.  Then they can speak again, responding to the first round.  It might be useful to have a third round where candidates could summarize their positions.  They could sell themselves, challenge something a competitor said, or rant stupidly.

The general election debates could be similarly structured.  With fewer candidates, they would have more time in each round.  And they might be given more rounds.  As the campaign progresses, the candidates alternate as the starting speaker for a series of debates.

And while we are at it, let us take the debates away from the major networks.  These are national, not commercial, interests.  Let C-SPAN handle it.  The networks could retransmit the C-SPAN feed.  So let's return the debates to something that worked fine in a political climate that was probably more divisive than it is today.

A Lincoln-Douglas format would give the candidates much more freedom to sell themselves.  They would also be much more entertaining.

Image: Public Domain.

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