This article appeared in the September 29, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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Do debates still matter?

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Crews prepare the hall for the first presidential debate between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden in Cleveland, Ohio, September 28, 2020.

Unfortunately, chances are slim that a candidate in tonight’s American presidential debate will call his opponent’s policy “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”

The three-hour-long debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 are a thing of the past. But are today’s debates pointless?

There’s a lot of talk about that. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that tonight’s debate is perhaps less likely to change viewers’ minds than any in recent history. And to be honest, television debates have never really had much of an effect, political science suggests. True, they’re good theater. Television networks will spend much of the next few days dissecting who “won” like SportsCenter replaying the latest Russell Wilson touchdown pass. But are debates more than just an ineffectual rite or a political sporting match?

Nearly 250 years into the American experiment, it can be easy to forget they are also an essential statement of democratic values. For 90 minutes tonight, the two men who would lead the country must be open and accountable – unable to hide from questions without everyone seeing it. Amid challenges to democratic norms the world over, that is something worth remembering.


This article appeared in the September 29, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 09/29 edition
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