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A little perspective on debates and the American attention span

The Lincoln-Douglas Senate debate format was this: The first candidate spoke for 60 minutes. The second got to reply for 90 minutes. Then the first rebutted him for 30 minutes.

Abraham Lincoln shown in 1860 and Stephen Douglas in 1859.
Creative Commons

As we head into the big first debate, the national mood is foul. I would dare to call it ridiculously, self-indulgently foul.

Lots of Americans have serious challenges, and so do we collectively, as a society. (When, exactly, did we, or any other society, have no problems?)

It you want to believe that times are bad, you can, and you can find facts to reinforce your (to me mysterious) desire to believe that your complaints are epic on a global and historic scale. All you have to do is ignore all your good fortune, exaggerate your complaints and voilà, a hellscape appears in your mind. If you run out of material, one of the presidential candidates will gladly remind you of how awful everything is, even if you and he have to make up some of the facts.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been born in the time and place I was (America, 1951). I believe my kids, born in the 1990s, are roughly as fortunate (more so, if you like Facebook), especially if one opens one’s mind to other times and places, (like most times in history and most places in the world other than this one). And yes, some of us even get to live in Minnesota.

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And yes (this is where I lose some of you, if I haven’t already) some of us (not me) who have gone without health insurance for years can get it now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. (Yeah, I know it’s not perfect, but if you were one of the 20 million or so who have coverage for the first time, you might not be quite so obsessed with its imperfections, and yet I notice when it is denounced that aspect of the case is usually omitted.)

As regular readers of this space know, I’m mildly obsessed with keeping things in historical perspective, which enables me to remind myself that whatever our problems, we’ve dealt with worse. And I love to play the Lincoln card, not only because it conjures up the Civil War, a truly awful experience for those who lived through it and/or died because of it, but because the story of Honest Abe is just so full of surprises and humor in the face of adversity and inspiration.

So, having wasted this much of your time and MinnPost’s space with that long intro, I’m prepared to say that one aspect of contemporary American life is badly broken. That’s our politics and our political discourse. And so, herewith, the Lincoln card.

Ol’ Abe engaged, during 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois, in seven (!) debates with his opponent, the notable Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas. Douglas was probably too short and dumpy to make it in politics today, and Lincoln was hilariously tall and awkward and really quite homely and had a surprisingly squeaky off-putting voice, considering his physique. (Still the tallest of U.S. presidents at 6’4”.)

60 minutes, then 90, then …

Here’s where it gets kind of amazing by today’s standards. The Lincoln-Douglas debate format was this: The first candidate spoke for 60 minutes. No moderator. No questions. Just a 60-minute argument. Then whichever one hadn’t gone first got to reply and rebut for 90 minutes. That’s not a typo. Ninety minutes of one guy talking, no microphones, no commercial breaks. Then, the one who had gone first spoke for a final 30 minutes. And then they were done until they met again and resumed the argument in the next town a few days later with the order of the speakers reversed.

Newspapers, just in Illinois, took down the debates in shorthand and ran the full transcripts, consuming many pages of the old broadsheets, and, presumably, people all over the country read them.

Lincoln and Douglas were arguing over a very important and then-vital aspect of the slavery question. Not whether it should be abolished (Lincoln conceded that no federal constitutional power existed to abolish it) but whether it could be contained to the states in which it then existed and prohibited from expanding into the new states as the country expanded westward. Lincoln, who stipulated then and continued to stipulate after his election as president, that he had no plans abolish slavery in the states that already had it, but believed if its spread could be halted, it might be placed on a “path to ultimate extinction.”

There was no controversy over whether the moderator should inject himself into the debates as a foul-caller or a fact-checker, because there was no moderator. The two candidates just argued with each other, using facts and arguments, quoting from scripture and Shakespeare and the Dred Scott decision, and when they were finished, the audience didn’t wait for the pundits to come on and analyze who had won. No focus groups either.

Lincoln may have won the debates, both because they made him a national figure and put him on the list of possible future Republican nominees, and because he was right on the arguments. But he lost the election.

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Three hours, a dinner break, and then …

I first focused on the Lincoln-Douglas debates while reading Neil Postman’s great 1984 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Writes Postman, on the amazing three-hour format:

“They had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., the he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.”

Postman emphasized the astonishing duration (and civil, substantive nature) of these events so he could ask, compared to contemporary Americans:

“What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?”

Well, you could say (and I would say, at least partially) that there was nothing on television that night because television hadn’t been invented yet. These were residents of Illinois prairie towns. This was the best show to which they would have access for a long time. Postman’s main argument was that Americans in the pretelevision age had longer attention spans because the advent of television had shortened the attention spans of those to whom he was writing in the 1980s. And, of course, Twitter and Insta-this-and-that  have shortened attention spans further.

Happy debate day.