By Cadie McNaboe, DCI Fellow
On September 29th, countless Americans tuned in to watch the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden. For those who persevered through the antagonistic comments and arguments with the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, it was clear that it was impossible to call the back and forth exchange a deliberation, and unlikely to term it a debate. NBC anchor Lester Holt, right after the debate had closed said, “If hearing that this debate is over was music to your ears, you may not be alone … I’m at a bit of a loss for words here to describe what we’ve just witnessed.” I stand in agreement with him.
While this is only my third round of presidential debates (that I remember-it’s distinctly possible my parents set me in front of the TV to watch the debates as a child), my years of competing in debate taught me about the rigidity and rules of debating, none of which were present in this debate. The DCI defines debate as structured discourse that is oriented towards highlighting differences and exposing weaknesses; with previous presidential debates, it also has been utilized to signify an alignment towards policy and an opportunity for a “winner” to emerge through their use of political prose and powerful rhetoric. This debate, with its insults, interruptions, and cross-talk intended only to derail the moderator’s questioning, should be considered more of a reality-TV scene than anything else.
Deliberation, on the other hand, has something else to offer the American public. Based on cooperation rather than competition, deliberation seeks to build collective and individual understanding, and works to bridge the divides across the political spectrum so frequently apparent at the national level. Going beyond the constraints of debate’s binary pro-con style, deliberation calls for good-faith arguments, ones that seeks to understand our commonalities rather than our differences.
Through deliberation, with its use of an active facilitator, connections can be woven, and viewpoints can be shared through the strategic use of stories, statistics, productive cross-talk and thoughtful consideration of new perspectives beyond our own. This non-adversarial approach builds on the unique perspectives each deliberator holds, and their inherent power to share their perspective with others.
Deliberation also stands to provide an opportunity to enable action after its closing. In a debate, participants would shake hands (pre-COVID), get the judge’s feedback and “scoresheets” and then proceed to move to the next topic of concern. Instead of positing a temporary topic of concern, deliberation allows and encourages voluntary action as a relevant part of the deliberative process. Communication around these contentious issues is essential but does little without action tied to it.
This is why after each D-Team meeting or deliberative forum, the DCI sends out Beyond the Deliberation, a compilation of tangible action pathways for participants to consider if they feel inspired to pursue any of them. These pathways, with ways to get informed, get connected, and get involved, contribute to the autonomy of each deliberator, who can individually and collectively continue the work our democracy requires. After watching the first presidential debate, it’s easy to feel unsure about the state of our country, but if instead of a reason to forfeit anything related to politics, we must use that debate as a call for cooperation as a collective response. If we do that, then we are empowered and also well positioned to begin the lifelong work of deliberation and action – for the benefit of ourselves and our democracy.