Op-ed: Political debate hit bottom this election cycle, but it remains crucial

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

The 2016 presidential election and primary season was uncomfortable and overwrought at best — dangerous and disgraceful at worst — and the associated debates have reached a level of farce few would have predicted.

We’ve seen candidates insult opponents’ wives and mothers, coin ridiculous nicknames, ignore debate procedures, argue about the size of their hands and spend more time talking about email than previously thought possible. It’s enough to convince anyone that civic discourse is dead and political debate is useless. I hope to convince you otherwise.

Debate, critique and argumentation are essential components of information comprehension and knowledge application. Jonathan Osborne wrote for Science that without critique, “the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible” and that argumentation is “an essential skill” in contemporary society. Scholars like Deanna Kuhn of Columbia have found that students who develop debate skills are more than twice as likely to consider opposing views when they form an argument. Debate doesn’t just make a person a better critical thinker or speaker; it makes them a better listener.

As a coach of a collegiate forensics program (speech and debate), I’ve seen this in action. My students know that when they’re attentive to the logic of an opposing team or receptive to the criticism of a judge, they’re more likely to learn something — and come home with a trophy. But these skills matter beyond science classrooms and forensics competition. Jeffrey Parcher of Georgetown University argued in support of debate programs, citing public debate as essential to the founding of our nation and its continued prosperity, and E. Michael Nussbaum wrote in Contemporary Educational Psychology that “the ability of citizens to think critically is paramount” in any democracy.

Any number of studies (such as those summarized by John Gastil for Political Communication) find that when citizens participate in political discourse, they develop greater political understanding, feel more politically empowered and are more likely to be strong, consistent civic actors.

That’s why, despite the political circus happening on the national stage, local and statewide political debates are so important. They provide an arena for citizens to expand what they know about their communities, interact with the systems that directly impact their daily lives, and engage in the critical thinking and listening skills that make all of us more open-minded.

If we want legislation to pass, issues to be less contentious and news less inflammatory and the government not to be shut down by partisanship, citizens need these skills and they need to start local. Debate — productive, thoughtful debate — is the real political revolution.

Listen to any of the debates from this year’s local legislative series co-produced by the ABU Education Fund and the John R. Park Debate Society, and you’ll realize grassroots change is happening. Across one school board and three state house races, there was no name calling or mudslinging. Polite disagreement took the place of constant interruption and calls for imprisonment.

Was every question answered perfectly and were the candidates without fault? Of course not. There was certainly room for improvement, but I believe that being held publicly accountable for their platforms pushed these candidates to hone their policy positions and develop more detailed stances on the issues important to their constituents.

I also hold firm that attending or listening to these debates makes constituents more apt to feel like the integral part of the political process that they are. An undecided voter told us after one of the debates that she “came with an open mind” and “left with a lawn sign.”

That is democracy in action. That is why public debate matters.

Dakota Park-Ozee studies political rhetoric at the University of Utah, where she is also a graduate teaching assistant and an assistant coach for the John R. Park Debate Society.

Read the Salt Lake Tribune Op-Ed here

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