Anniversary of Lincoln-Douglas Debates Highlights Pointlessness of Today�s Political Rhetoric
By Lori Wright, Media Relations
August 6, 2008
On Aug. 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas kicked off the first
of seven historic debates in their campaign for the Illinois seat in the U.S.
Senate. Now 150 years later, much has changed in how political candidates discuss
the issues, and not for the better, according to a UNH professor who studies
political rhetoric and persuasion.
According to James Farrell, associate professor of communication, modern political
debates are controlled by journalists, time constraints, and positions formed
by sophisticated polling data. The intense, three-hour debates between Lincoln
and Douglas would never happen today, Farrell says, because the candidates
are too carefully managed, and the attention span of Americans and the production
requirements of television, which insists on treating politics like a sporting
event, wouldn't permit it.
“They are joint news conferences with the side purpose of trying to
make the opponent look bad in some fashion. If you think about the values that ‘win’ debates,
they are the things that make for bad government – instant, short and
snappy answers to enormously complex questions given mainly with an eye toward
replays on the news and good ‘spin’ in the post-debate analysis,” Farrell
Instead, Americans should support a deliberative process that allows candidates
to admit, for example, when they need to consult with advisors and weigh various
options before commenting about an important issue.
“When have you ever heard a candidate say, ‘you know, my opponent
has a very good idea about how to deal with this problem. I think we should
do what he suggests’? We would want a president to do this if it was
right for the country, but we award ‘debating’ points to those
candidates who are witty in disparaging their opponent, and who never show
any hint of compromise or inconsistency,” he says.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates defined the terms of the American struggle to
deal with slavery in the late 1850s. In each debate, the candidates spoke at
length, without any questions from journalists or interruptions by a moderator.
They took turns speaking, with the first speaker addressing a live audience
for about 45 minutes on the single topic of slavery. The opposing candidate
offered a rebuttal of an hour or so. The man who spoke first then followed
with a 15-minute rejoinder.
“The Lincoln-Douglas debates are complete with moral, historical, legal,
and political arguments. They are thorough and sharp-witted, revealing of the
candidates' talents, positions and thinking in ways contemporary debates cannot
approach,” Farrell says.
While Douglas narrowly won the election for the U.S. Senate seat, the exposure
Lincoln gained from the hugely popular debates launched him to national prominence,
which played a large part in him capturing the presidency in 1860.
Although today’s political rhetoric bears little resemblance to that
of the 1850s, the Lincoln-Douglas debates still can teach us about the art
of political persuasion, such as how public moral and legal argument can help
Americans define the issues and see the significance of the consequences of
political decisions with moral components to them.
Farrell says Americans also can learn a lot about the expectations citizens
had about the abilities of candidates for office -- could they reason well?
Could they articulate convincing positions eloquently? Could they think on
As for Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, Farrell says both are skilled
in the politics of the day. However, this should not be taken as evidence of
eloquence, as both rely heavily on aspects of politics that didn't matter in
Lincoln's day: polling, television, sound bites, special interest pandering,
contrived photo opportunities, advertising, and huge amounts of money, especially
“All these factors have helped to make old-fashioned reasoned argument
-- the kind that anticipates an informed and interested audience –- obsolete,” Farrell
says. “I don't entirely blame the candidates; we are getting what we
crave. Who wants to listen to three hours of debate on abortion or the Iraq
War when we can have Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart tell us what's going on?”
“Neither Obama or McCain is even within a country mile of Abraham Lincoln
or Stephen Douglas as a skilled rhetor,” he says.