A little perspective on debates and the American attention span

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Abraham Lincoln shown in 1860 and Stephen Douglas in 1859.

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.

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.

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. 

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/26/2016 - 10:11 am.

    Paart of attention span

    is understanding what the discussion is about.
    I suspect that those attending the Lincoln Douglas debates (remember that that’s many fewer than those watching on TV today) were much more knowledgeable about the topics than today’s average voter.

  2. Submitted by William Lindeke on 09/26/2016 - 11:15 am.

    your article is a bit long



    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/26/2016 - 11:49 am.


      I appreciate the wit involved in the above, but perhaps the primary duty of language – any language – is to communicate, hopefully clearly. As a certified old person, without a smart phone of any kind, and unable (and probably unwilling) to Twitter, I confess I have absolutely no idea what the comment says or means. This seems to me to be somewhat counter to the rationale for making a comment in the first place. Just sayin’…

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/26/2016 - 11:39 am.

    Why this debate format will never fly.

    It’s NOT that the voters’ attention span is too short.

    It’s because it would INCREASE the voters’ attention span, which would screw up more than we have fingers to count, such as:

    – hundreds of millions in corporate ad revenue spent on 30 second sound bites would likely decline;

    – the trivialization of election campaigns;

    – the elimination of candidates lacking real substance in their campaigns;

    – reduced influence of money in general in the election of candidates, as real issues took their proper place at the fore ;

    – and so on.

    No, an electorate served by a true and informative debate, necessarily focussed on real issues, just will not do. There is too much money at stake here.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 09/26/2016 - 12:07 pm.

    All attention spans are technologically adaptive.

    Please, do not believe these spans were somehow affectively shorter when radio ruled the information industry, or prior to that, when 6-8 newspapers daily conveyed “critical” matters to its townspeople, or even when news was gathered in some public square as it arrived by rider a horseback, or otherwise.

    The human mind is an amazing processor, one that develops more speed and acuity as information input does the same. As ever throughout history, the issue is to what extent we humans wish to employ the full power of our processors.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/26/2016 - 12:10 pm.

    This debate is not for Americans who have been paying attention to the presidential campaign in its details. It is for those who have not taken the time, or don’t have the interest, to follow the campaign and who have been proceeding on water-cooler joking and “ha-has” about this or that outrageous Trumpism. If they watch CNN or Fox News, they’ve seen a lot of Trump at rallies and in interviews ; they haven’t seen much of Hillary Clinton beyond political ads for, and especially attacking, her.

    The prospect of a “show” rather than a substantive debate will bring lots of inattentives to watch this debate. They may learn something.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/27/2016 - 07:44 am.

    Attention Span is Conditioned by the World Around Us

    Way back when I was a teacher, It was clear that my students could only pay attention for the first 12 minutes of class,…

    then we needed a change of pace or a change of direction,…

    or their attention would just wander away for awhile.

    They had been conditioned by watching network TV programming (the only thing available at that time),…

    where the first commercial break came at 12 minutes in.

    Later that changed to 8 minutes.

    I suspect it’s different, now, when students are so used to watching internet video, where programming is often uninterrupted,…

    and many spend hours playing video games which have extended their ability to focus on a single thing far beyond what it was back in the 70s and 80s.

    Still, the debate format, itself, probably does not lend itself to the keeping the attention of younger folk today,…

    since they have so little experience listening to extended speech.

    Even in movie theaters, I’ve noticed that, when the action on the screen slows and the characters begin to hold a quiet conversation,…

    many of the folk watching the movie do the same;…

    start talking to each other or texting their friends,….

    while waiting for something exciting to happen on the screen again.

    In the end, I can’t help but think that, rather than commercials, speeches or debates,…

    a more effective campaign tool would be an extended video,…

    perhaps an entire program for release on the internet,…

    which uses exciting action and a fast-moving plot,…

    to illustrate how wonderful the world will be if your, yourself, are elected,…

    and how horrible it would be if your opponent were.

    I wonder which party will be the first to do so.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/29/2016 - 09:19 am.

    Some perspective on perspective

    Attention spans are a brain thing, it’s actually quite unlikely that the potential for attention spans has changed in the last 150 years.

    What people attend to and for how long can change over time (people used to spend more time listening to the radio) but three hours isn’t THAT long. Just because people may not want to pay attention to you for more than 12 minutes today doesn’t mean they can’t pay attention to anything for more than 12 minutes. The movie “Titanic” came in an a little over three hours and our TV generation made it a super duper box office success.

    From an historical perspective all we can say is that people sat through 3-6 hour debates in 1658, but we can’t really conclude that their capacity to pay attention to something was actually greater than current human capacity. You also have to remember that while the debates were well attended (1,500 -15,000) the population of the state was close to a million at the time. That means that 1.5% or less of the population attended the debates, and that was a self selected group who were obviously very interested in the debates. We can’t conclude from this that the people of Illinois had longer attention spans in 1858 than they do now.

    Finally, we have to remember that our political attention today isn’t limited to debates, it’s spread across multiple formats. We may “only” spend 90 minutes watching a debate, but many of us spend hours reading and studying the candidates and their positions elsewhere in addition to the debates. While the papers of the day in Illinois may have printed transcripts of the Lincoln Douglass debates, I doubt there were days when either candidate commanded multiple headlines on the front pages for instance. When you add up the TV, Facebook, Newspaper, Online, Offline, etc. coverage of today’s politics and elections we may well be spending more time attending to elections they people spent in 1900’s.

    As for the 1858 debates and elections themselves, we really don’t know why people ended up voting the way the did, we simply have no data. Just because we have extensive records of the debates doesn’t mean we can conclude that those debates won or lost elections. We have no survey data, no exit polls, no tracking polls… nothing. We simply have no data to confirm a proposition that people in 1858 had longer attention spans, and based their political reasoning on 3-6 hour debates, especially when we know that the vast majority did not attend those debates.

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