Friday, April 22, 2011


There's been a spate of articles about the Civil War as we've reached the sesquicentennial of the opening salvo on Fort Sumter. It's reopened the debate on race, as well as the nature of the union, and of course it's fascinating to think about why a black president was categorically impossible at the centennial point in 1961. But it made me think about the nature of debates now and then.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates just before the momentous election of 1860 were even more focused on slavery-related issues than our midterm elections were on the economy. And they established a pattern of official rules still used today for school debates, but they also were a good study in the rules of the game: finding isolate facts selected to buttress the case; appeals to emotion (usually fear) and ideology; invented facts and sometimes baseless assertions; and various levels of character assassination. Lincoln was very aware of being in a transitional realm between his moribund former party the Whigs and the emerging Republican party, and Douglas was aware of needing to alternately reassure and provide selective fearmongering for his Democratic base, which included Know-Nothings from the preceding years, arguably something like the Tea Party of the time in a way:

"The next question I put to [Mr. Lincoln] was, whether he was in favor of prohibiting the admission of any more Slave States into the Union. .. I asked him to answer me and you, whether he would vote to admit a State ...with slavery or without it... He did not answer that question. He dodges that question also, under the cover that he was not on the Committee at the time..."

And for every such thrust, Lincoln has a parry, and a similar thrust. Time-honored means keep repeating:

"The only concrete proposal in the President's plan that he'll roll out today is his plan to raise taxes, and I find that very unacceptable given we're several days out from tax day in this country. We don't believe that raising taxes is the answer here," - Eric Cantor, R-Va.

"As the President made clear, Democrats have a different view. We believe that the responsible approach is to make sure the wealthiest Americans contribute their fair share ..." - Harry Reid, D-Nev

What's interesting now, of course, is that all of the thrusts and parries are preserved forever on one or another web server just awaiting a query from all and sundry. Not only that, but there are a bevy of online debate sites operating within the classic structure, but adding the wrinkle of moderation by anyone, and participation by anyone. One difficulty now, as then, is distinguishing which elements are ideological first, and which are primarily a matter of pragmatic manipulation. For instance, many Republicans oppose in particular higher tax rates for the wealthy or big business first and foremost because they believe that those who have achieved success deserve to keep every penny. They may or may not pay lip service to the supply side argument of the inherent putative benefit of the most prosperous getting more prosperous, more jobs, and more spending creating more jobs. And Democrats tend to believe that the wealthy are predominantly greedy and power-mad, and in need of trammelling. But they'll tend to talk about idealistic social programs they want to use all those tax-the-wealthy dollars for rather than their mistrust of Big Oil.

Wouldn't it be a treat to see a site like, with its nifty side-by-sides and results rollups, have a debate on the deficit plan between, perhaps, Paul Krugman and Robert Samuelson, with voting by various knowledgable parties?

There's no reason, however, you couldn't press them into service for other pressing issues like the recently posted "New Heinz Ketchup Packets Or The Old Ones?"...

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