GVSU debate expert: Final presidential debate had much-needed infusion of order, allowing voters to learn more

Normally in Carl Brown’s course on debate, he would talk extensively with students about the parliamentary style of debate and its virtues.

It is an orderly approach, said Brown, assistant professor of communication studies. The style allows a chance for well-constructed arguments and counterpoints.

“We would talk about insulting people with kindness, such as, ‘My esteemed colleague is terribly wrong about this,’” Brown said.

The nature of modern presidential debates has meant a different analysis with his class, including how to bring civility to presidential debates, a discussion that Brown laments as even being necessary.

Carl Brown
Carl Brown
Image credit - Courtesy photo

With that in mind, Brown was apprehensive about the final presidential debate on Oct. 22 given the atmosphere of the previous one, which Brown said was “more of a food fight.” While acknowledging a low bar, his takeaway from the final debate is that it was a much better performance for both President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“This is what you expect from a presidential debate, where you learned some things and possibly helped undecided voters make up their minds because they could hear what each candidate said this time,” said Brown, who is also executive director of the Speech Lab and faculty advisor to the Debate Club.

“I would say that it was much more civil and organized," he said. "There was more self-control and much more adherence to time limits, which helped the debate progress.” 

He also credited moderator Kristen Welker for her fair questions and stoic demeanor while effectively managing time limits and the interaction between the candidates. Brown also thought the mute button worked even if it was a deterrent, limiting cross talk.

The need for a mute button is an indication of how unruly debates have gotten in general, he said, with almost an entertainment component. “Basically, we have turned our presidential and political debate into sporting events.”

Two overriding forces are at work, Brown said -- debate structure and the mood and expectations of the current electorate. 

Brown said the debate structure needs reform, in particular because debates are trying to cover too much ground in too short of time. Also, the partisan nature of much of the American electorate means there is a premium on scoring easy points for voters to feed on, he said.

Brown said students in his class tend to be turned off by that atmosphere as well as the time limits of the formats. He said they want to see more time devoted to something as important as health care, noting influencer tutorials on social media often last longer than the amount of time devoted to such crucial topics during a debate.

In reality, a superficial element to debates dawned once they started being televised, Brown said, noting the well-known outcome of the first presidential debate in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Those who listened on the radio tended to think Nixon did better, while those watching on TV thought Kennedy did.

For Brown’s debate students, even though they aren’t seeing the true parliamentary style of debate in action in politics, they do have an opportunity to consider the forces that have made modern debates particularly contentious.

“I think it’s important as a class that we talk about why things have become this way and what we can do to remedy it,” Brown said.


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.