Nowadays, candidates get only a few seconds to parse complex issues. Can technology change the format and rescue us from sound-bite culture?
Presidential debates were not always a string of ideological sound bites, largely devoid of policy specifics. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, debates were several hours long, strongly substantive, and would drill down ever deeper into issues through a series of focused rebuttals.
In contrast, at last night's GOP debate in Iowa, the overwhelming majority of speeches made no reference to other candidates or contrasting opinions. On the occasion when a moderator would ask about specific disagreements, candidates were given a tiny 15-30 second window to respond, often using their leftover seconds to tout small-government values and President Obama's failed leadership.
The GOP's 19th century forerunners could not have been more different. As described by historian Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
On October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln's turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed..."
The series of engagements acted as a continuation of a larger national dialog: Lincoln and Douglas casually dropped references to previous debates, Supreme Court decisions, and intraparty quarrels. Even at an astonishing six-plus hours, the candidates apparently felt that any self-contained debate couldn't do justice to the deeply complex issues they were discussing.