Politics, Elections 2020
We Aren’t Debating about Values Anymore; We Are Debating about Reality, and that Is a Huge Problem
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates — seven engagements that occurred in different Illinois cities between two candidates for the US Senate in 1858— remain the gold standard for political debates in our nation. Partly this is because of the format. A one-hour opening speech, a 90-minute rebuttal, and a 30-minute response from the first speaker. But part of it too was the content. Lincoln and Douglas actually disagreed about how to value a certain set of agreed-upon facts.
If Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had not debated the morality of slavery — and brought two different moral propositions to the table to be examined and dissected as moral propositions — the history of the United States would have turned out very differently.
There were not multiple topics in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. There was one topic. The debates were about slavery and nothing else, because, in 1858, no other issue was really up for discussion. But this does not mean that the debate was between abolition and universal approval of slavery. Neither candidate held either of these positions at the time. Douglas advocated what he called “Popular Sovereignty,” which meant that each state should choose for itself whether or not to permit slavery. Lincoln favored a ban on slavery in new territories without any change in existing states.
But the pivotal moment in the debates came in the fifth debate in Galesburg, when Lincoln shifted the debate entirely to the value proposition that slavery is morally wrong. This became his major talking point during his presidential campaign and the underlying ethical principle of his actions as president. This is what he said:
I suppose that the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends, and the Republicans on the contrary, is, that the Judge is not in favor of making any difference between slavery and liberty — that he is in favor of eradicating, of pressing out of view, the questions of preference in this country for free or slave institutions; and consequently every sentiment he utters discards the idea that there is any wrong in slavery.
Lincoln and Douglas argued about values — the value of freedom, the value of state sovereignty, and the value of human life. As I watched the debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump last night, I was struck by how infrequently either candidate talked about values. Everything that separated them was a version of reality placed in opposition to another version of a different reality. “Neither Biden nor Trump spent much time asserting the good of their respective philosophies,” wrote Elizabeth Bruening in this morning’s New York Times New York Times, “ there’s no debate there, just an aggressive presentation of two different worlds.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe the debate. Rather than talking about the best way to handle COVID-19, the entire debate focused on questions like, When did Trump know that COVID was serious? What did Biden say about closing travel from China? When will a vaccine be ready to distribute? How did Biden and Obama handle a previous outbreak? In one version of reality, Donald Trump acted swiftly and heroically to confront a threat, saving millions of lives by his order to prevent travel from China. In another version, the administration aggressively denied and minimized the virus threat until it was too late to prevent an economic collapse and the death of more than 200,000 Americans.
The same dynamic was repeated all night about every other issue that came up. Health care, immigration, trade, election interference. If such a thing as a neutral voter still existed, he or she must have watched the debate with a sense of amazement that both candidates agreed 100% on every value proposition that came up while disagreeing fanatically about facts that anybody should be able to look up and settle once and for all.
Except that we can’t look up the facts and settle things once and for all because we no longer agree on a mechanism for verifying factual information. There is no longer any person or process who can be trusted to establish the factness of a claim of fact. In the past, this role has been played by journalists, scientists, historians, eye-witnesses, and, from time to time, common sense. It is bad enough that we can't agree as a country about how many people have died this year of COVID-19. We are now having serious disagreements about whether or not a former Vice President of the United States and current presidential candidate leads a secret group of Satanic pedophiles who eat children for breakfast.
I don’t want to argue here for one or the other version of any particular reality. I want to talk about the consequences of a political system that has almost entirely abandoned believing in things like values and principles and now decides issues based solely on the extent to which the public can be made to accept certain versions of reality. Just imagine what the Lincoln-Douglas Debates would have looked like under the same assumptions.
LINCOLN: Slavery is an evil, and we need to be able to say that it is evil.
DOUGLAS: And who started slavery, Abe. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson was a Republican. You are a Republican. Why are you even talking to me about slavery?
LINCOLN: Jefferson wasn’t even in the country when the Constitution was written. he is irrelevant.
DOUGLAS: This is why people will never vote for Republicans. You can’t even say that Thomas Jefferson was a great man because you are so busy trying to blame Democrats for slavery. But facts are facts: Republicans are the ones who started slavery. Democrats are the ones that allowed states who want to end slavery.
LINCOLN: If I am President, human beings will no longer be in chains?
DOUGLAS: And who made the chains, Joe? I’ll tell you who made the chains. Republicans made the chains. They were made in Pennsylvania. A Northern state. Pennsylvania is in the North, Abe. Not the South. All of the factories are in the North. In the South we grow food so you can eat and cotton so you can wear clothes. But you are the ones making all the chains.
And so on. If Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had not debated the morality of slavery — and brought two different moral propositions to the table to be examined and dissected as moral propositions — the history of the United States would have turned out very differently. If they had spent three hours in each debate arguing about who started slavery, or who manufactured the chains, or any of the factual claims wrapped up in the dispute, we would never have had the serious moral debate that eventually ended slavery and made the world (however slowly) more humane and just.
Debates about values are won through moral persuasion, perhaps the most valuable skill that people in a democracy can possess. Debates about alternative versions of reality are won by shouting louder, screaming more, and, ultimately, by coercion and force. The underlying principle of fascism is that power can determine truth. And totalitarianism is ultimately nothing more than a state monopoly on the mechanisms that legitimate claims of fact. The fact that our final presidential debate in 2020 had almost nothing to do with values and everything do with alternative realities should scare the hell out of us all.