Time to take debate to a new level?

Stephen Steinberg says civility is overrated. Especially in politics.

So as he watches John Kerry and George W. Bush banter during presidential debates, he can't help but wish the candidates would stop being so nice.

"I think civility is highly overestimated as a virtue," says Steinberg, an expert on public discourse and a critic of political debate. "Civility and respect are the product of engagement, not a precondition. A lot of people think first you have rules and civility and respect, and then you have a conversation. But by the time you put all of that in place, there's no conversation left to be had."

So while modern political campaigns are not lacking in attack ads and cheap one-liners, Steinberg says, they are lacking in real, in-depth debate. The voting public has suffered as a result.

"Real, good public discourse—that's real deliberative democracy—is all about engaging each other's reasoning," says Steinberg, who also is executive director of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community and has served as assistant to the president at Penn since 1990. "Without that, it's just a point-counterpoint situation in claims and counterclaims."

A simple way to heighten the level of political discourse, Steinberg says, would be to change the way debates are held. In the current system, moderators have too much control—and their questions often arenít tough enough, he says.

A better debate model would create opportunities for the candidates to address one another directly. Such a format would allow them to both more fully explain their own positions—and the philosophical reasoning behind those positions—as well as challenge their opponentís thinking. A moderator could step in if the debate got out of hand, Steinberg says.

"The big thing I would change would be to allow the candidates to engage each other," he says. "It's not hard to do, but you have to be attuned to the need to do it."

While the political parties may not be thrilled with such a format ("All indications are they wouldnít be," Steinberg says), he believes Bush and Kerry would jump at the chance. Both men are passionate about their positions, and would likely enjoy the chance to explain why.

"We're only a hair's breadth away from something that would be more valuable and more interesting," he says. "The trick is to get [the parties] to engage in that higher level of debate across the political divide."

If the parties aren't willing, he says, it's time for Americans to demand it. He's hopeful they will.

"One thing I don't buy into is that Americans, and particularly young people, are profoundly disengaged from the political process," he says. "The American people are pretty smart, and they know when candidates are avoiding the issues."

Originally published on October 21, 2004