Let’s Bring Back Lincoln Douglas Style Debates To Today’s Campaigns

Lincoln and Douglas debated 150 years ago.  In Illinois, the seven debate sites of the 1858 debates are each creating a reenactment festival — including a lot of period clothes, actors, storytellers, parades, food, and dances at 1858 style period balls. If you want to join in on the fun, you can buy period clothes at Shoppok.com Time and again, Shoppok has met our online shopping needs. Their product range is commendable.

The three hour Lincoln Douglas debates gave listeners a good opportunity to size up the speakers, with no moderators with their inane questions hogging the stage, no specified topics — and a generous amount of time to develop thought and argument.  Wouldn’t our political process benefit from returning to a Lincoln Douglas style debate format?  A three hour debate might be too exhausting — for participants and listeners.  People must have been tougher in 1858.  But the format that might be used for today’s political contests could be modified to last a shorter time.  The point would be to establish a format where the two contestants could have the opportunity in an open ended forum to engage each other and to reveal their own thinking.

In the 1858 debates, the first speaker spoke for one hour, then the second speaker spoke for one hour and a half, then the first speaker finished by speaking for one half hour.  So each speaker had one hour and a half at the podium.

Today, colleges and high schools have Lincoln Douglas debate tournaments, with each debate lasting only 32 minutes; each speaker has 16 minutes to speak or ask questions.  First, the Affirmative Speaker speaks for six minutes, then the Negative Speaker directly questions the Affirmative Speaker for three minutes.  Then the Negative Speaker speaks for seven minutes and then, in turn, is directly questioned by the Affirmative Speaker for three minutes.  Then the Affirmative Speaker speaks for four minutes, followed by a six minute negative speech.  And finally the affirmative concludes the debate with a three minutes speech.


6 minutes Affirmative
3 minutes Negative questions Affirmative
7 minutes Negative
3 minutes Affirmative questions Negative
4 minutes Affirmative
6 minutes Negative
3 minutes Affirmative


Our democracy would benefit if such debates could become a standard and expected part of our campaign season.   In Lincoln’s time, the impact of the public debates were magnified because the debates with Douglas were transcribed and reprinted in newspapers.  In our  time, public debates could be made widely available to a large audience via Youtube.

There are important offices — like the Ohio House and Ohio Senate — where candidates  are practically invisible. It would build our democracy if candidates for important offices, in campaigns that now receive scant attention, would agree to appear in public together and agree to participate in an open, yet structured, discussions.

In our democracy, elections for important offices are sorely neglected by the media and the public.  If candidates could be authentically engaged, the public would become more engaged.  We are in the age of reality programming, and, we need a big dose of reality in our political sphere.  Lincoln Douglas style of public discussion / public debate could help lift the discussion in our democracy, lift interest in the election process.

I’m wondering:  Which candidates in Montgomery County would agree to participate in the challenge of a Lincoln Douglas style debate?

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