In late summer and early autumn of 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas conducted seven debates around the State of Illinois. Thousands of people attended the contests, at which each speaker got 90 minutes to make his case. The result is among the classics of American political oratory. The style is folksy and occasionally silly. But the language is clear and honest, and the arguments are deadly serious.
Last night’s spectacle wasn’t like that. Although we call it a debate, it was really a group interview, with candidates answering questions from the moderators rather than developing and contrasting their positions. This was probably unavoidable, given the number of candidates and short attention spans of viewers. But the reality show format doesn’t inspire pride in American civic life.