Make Debates(and debating) Great Again!

When it comes to party primary debates in Georgia, the series of debates (HD 1, 2 & SD 53) hosted by the Walker and Catoosa Republican Parties this past Saturday could have been worse. None of the debates descended into threatened armed conflict, as happened in 1856 when Alexander Stephens challenged Ben Hill to a duel.

Alas, a holstered arsenal does not necessarily mean the debate was a success. 

A party primary debate could be more relevant to voters and has more potential to be useful than the general election debates, which tend to get all the attention. General election debates feature sharply opposing views that are unlikely to influence anyone’s opinion. 

The purpose of a primary debate is to gather useful information from candidates to help voters make an informed choice between the candidates despite the fact that they do not differ on major party issues.

The set up for the debates was just like most others have been since 1960. Candidates stand at podiums, give opening remarks, then field questions with two minutes or so for their responses. This format is designed for television to maximize ratings and revenue. It seems to work well for the networks. But it is near useless for voters watching the televised debates. Use of the same format for local debates is worse than useless for voters; it is counterproductive for the candidates, the party, and the government as well. 

That’s my issue with the local party’s decision to do this. They should have recognized that the issues were much bigger and required more than a two minute window to discuss.

As one example, take the mental health bill that came up near the end of the District 1 race between Rep. Mike Cameron and Jackie Harling. Mrs. Harling was clearly upset about the bill’s passage. Rep. Cameron, who worked in the health insurance industry for 32 years, might have been able to address her concerns if the debate format had been different and intended to encourage better explanations and more information for everyone.

Instead, we endured a back and forth exchange of ever increasing volumes and blood pressure, during which Mrs. Harling falsely asserted that the bill would fund abortions and put the World Health Organization in charge of Georgia Healthcare. 

The second district debate lacked the eruptive qualities of the first, but with Todd Noblett and Jim Coles challenging Rep. Steve Tarvin, the additional body on the debate stage only exacerbated the problems of the format itself.

As with the prior debate, the moderators were not able to ask questions that would enable them to get into each candidate’s mind and learn more about their views on the job and nuanced aspects of issues. Instead, the moderators had to cut candidates off several times to comply with the rigid format.

Despite the lack of useful information during these debates, Jim Coles was determined to add a little irrelevancy. Coles used his opportunity to ask each candidate a question at the end to pose a circuitous question about the Vietnam War and the draft to Rep. Tarvin. The question was a clear insinuation that Tarvin had dodged the draft. In his response, Rep. Tarvin made it clear he was not a draft dodger and explained that his draft lottery numbers were high for the last two years of the draft, which drafted lower numbers first.

This bit of petty cheap theater revealed to voters a lot more about Mr. Coles than anything else he said during the day. It also illuminated another problem with the debate set up. It encourages candidates to behave like they are performers or manipulate questions and answers in hopes of a viral moment.

We can do better. Georgia was once a debating state, despite some of its citizens’ penchant for dueling to settle matters.

As a matter of fact, Northwest Georgia has a long and rich history of debate. Real debates with a classic style. The debates would present a statement (the topic) and ask participants to defend or oppose it.

From Reconstruction to the Depression, debating societies thrived in the region. In Walker County, no fewer than six different debate societies (organized by community) met twice or more each month. If that isn’t surprising enough, just take a look at some of the topics discussed.

  • “Which has received the most cruel punishment by the white man, the Indian, or the Negro?” – Mission Ridge Debate Society
  • “Resolved, that boys and girls should have a business education before marrying.” – Burning Bush Debate Society
  • “Resolved, that capital punishment should be abolished in Georgia.” – Villanow & Rossville Debate Societies
  • “Resolved, men should be better educated than women.” – Cedar Grove Debate Society
  • “Resolved, Georgia should have a compulsory school law.” – Fairview Debate Society
  • “Resolved, Protective Tariffs should be repealed” – Chickamauga Debate Society
  • “Resolved, that the editor has more influence than the orator.” – Rock Spring Debate Society

Participants had ample time to argue their side, listen to the opposition, and offer a rebuttal. The debates had incredible support within each community and throughout the region. Organizers would often invite singing groups to provide entertainment.

There is no clear way to regain the civic health we enjoyed over a century ago, but the state of our politics and parties calls for experimentation. One task is clear. We must take a cue from those Georgians of long ago – let’s make debates (and debating) great again!


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