This article appeared in the October 24, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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What vanishing debates say about US democracy

Ben Gray/AP
From left, Democrat Stacey Abrams, Libertarian Shane Hazel, and Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp participate in a gubernatorial debate during the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate Series in Atlanta on Oct. 17, 2022.
Linda Feldmann
Washington Bureau Chief

Political debates hold a special place in American history. In the 19th century, the Lincoln-Douglas debates put Abraham Lincoln on the map. In the 20th and 21st centuries, presidential candidate face-offs – live on television – have produced many iconic moments. But for more than a decade, the debate tradition has been in decline, a sign of the eroding norms of democratic engagement.

Today, while races for Senate or governor once each included a series of debates, voters are fortunate to have even one. The trend is stark: Between 2010 and 2022, the number of debates in the top five most competitive Senate races has declined from 22 to six, writes Colby Galliher of the Brookings Institution.

In Nevada, where the tight Senate race could determine control of the chamber in the Nov. 8 elections, the candidates may not debate at all. In the Arizona governor’s race, Democrat Katie Hobbs refuses to debate far-right Republican star Kari Lake. In Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker skipped a second agreed-upon debate against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.

The explanation for this no-debate trend is one of “electoral calculus,” as Mr. Galliher puts it. Debates are risky. Gaffes go viral and can doom a candidacy. Debates can also give oxygen to views some see as outside the mainstream.

But in the absence of debates, with candidates staying within their ideological echo chambers and playing just to friendly crowds, it’s voters who lose out.

For most candidates, the calculus still leans toward debating. Tonight, Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis – seen as a likely presidential contender in 2024 and profiled in today’s Monitor Daily – faces his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Tuesday, in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, the long-anticipated debate between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz will take place. Voters will get to see how Lieutenant Governor Fetterman fares, aided by a closed-captioned system, after a stroke in May. Tuesday will also feature a debate in the tightening New York governor’s race.

But the future is uncertain. In April, the Republican National Committee withdrew from the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has hosted such forums since 1988. The RNC claims political bias, echoing charges by then-President Donald Trump in 2020. The commission denies bias.

The American political system is under such strain, it’s possible there won’t even be presidential debates in 2024. But for now, most major races still include them – and that, Mr. Galliher writes, is a service to democracy.

This article appeared in the October 24, 2022 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 10/24 edition
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