The Washington Post
Worried about our democracy? College debate competitions offer hope.
If, like me, you are worried about political polarization and what it is doing to our country, I invite you to consider Arizona’s Regents’ Cup. It might just offer you a ray of hope for our democracy. I recently participated as a moderator and judge at the event. Sponsored by the Arizona Board of Regents, the Cup is a competition for students enrolled at one of the state’s three large public universities. Students debate or orate about controversial topics surrounding free speech and the Constitution. The winners receive $15,000 scholarships, roughly the cost of a year’s tuition for in-state students.
The participants I watched modeled civility and seriousness. The winning storyteller, the University of Arizona’s William Forte, spoke about how his experience at a fundamentalist Christian high school helped him understand and value liberty. The Oxford debate finals involved an intricate and thorough exploration of the relationship between liberty and prosperity. All involved knew their topics well and spoke eloquently.
The Oxford debate format was especially encouraging for those eager to see difficult issues discussed in a courteous manner. The core of the event is a 25-minute cross examination in which the two teams ask one another questions and challenge each other’s assumptions. This could get testy and personal, but students treated one another with respect and politeness. Harsh points were made firmly but softly, the polar opposite of our daily trash-talking cable news programs.
The Regents’ Cup isn’t unique in showing that democracy and civility can go hand in hand. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) sponsors a campus debate series that thousands of students have participated in over six years. The program partners with Braver Angels and Bridgeusa, two other groups dedicated to lowering partisan temperatures, to tackle such acrimonious topics as the rights of transgender athletes and the taking down of Confederate monuments. Denison University recently included the ACTA program as part of its mandatory first-year orientation program to show incoming freshman how mature college students engage in the debate of ideas.
These efforts are long overdue. Political debate always involves more than a modicum of exaggeration, fear-mongering and heated rhetoric, but in the past decade, such conflict has often ratcheted up into a toxic spew of hatred — especially online. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that the share of partisans who hold very unfavorable opinions of the other party has roughly tripled since 1994.
This sort of division has spelled doom since ancient times. The Greek historian Thucydides described how this cycle of hatred convulsed city after city during the Peloponnesian War. As a result, he wrote, “reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally” while “the advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy.” Sound familiar?
The Founders attempted to structure a republic that would minimize the chance of this happening in the United States. They built a diffuse nation with most powers remaining in the states. They also removed one of the major sources of hatred — religion — from national politics with the First Amendment. Thus far, our divisions have brought us to prolonged violence only during the Civil War.
The nationalization of our politics, however, has weakened many of the protections the Founders installed. The federal government now has the primary power over the economy, and the federalization of the Bill of Rights means most moral disputes ultimately wind up having a national solution. Two hundred years ago, no one would have thought that the regulation of abortion and marriage would be made in Washington. Today, that is the expectation of many Americans.
This fact makes the spirit of civility and compromise more important, not less. Our partisan tempers are hot today because both parties’ bases believe they would be stifled if the other obtained enduring power. Lowering that temperature and finding genuine solutions to the disputes that divide us are increasingly the sine qua non of American domestic statesmanship.
Programs such as the Regents’ Cup and the ACTA debates can help do that by training future leaders how to think like statesmen and stateswomen. They are not panaceas, but they can help to set the tenor of debate. Young college graduates hold disproportionate power in our system because they staff campaigns and offices, flock to the media and publishing houses, and dominate social media. If they want to debate rather than dominate, that impulse will quickly spread throughout the body politic.
I left the Regents’ Cup feeling a bit more hopeful about our future. If programs like this spread even further, I surely will not be alone.