Political Debate – Are We Winning the Battles and Losing the War?

by Oletta Branstiter

Have you been on any political Facebook groups lately?  Ephesians 6 comes to mind:

13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

It’s brutal out there.

Americans have lost the art of debate. It stems from a lack of conviction.

Oh, you’d think the people that strike up arguments are well-founded in their own opinions by the passion and vehemence they portray. Until it gets personal. Too quickly, it seems, our debaters run out of facts and logic and start a campaign of name-calling. Those who identify as Liberals or Progressives tend to become offended and declare the need for safe spaces. Those who blindly support a party or politician no matter how he or she violates convention, are liable to attack their opponent instead of addressing the topic at hand. Spewing illogical accusations based on assumptions of personal character is a pathetic attempt to defend their champion or prejudice. Ineffectual debaters will often resort to using profanity to deflect from their lack of confidence.

The argument devolves into emotional rantings and no common ground is discovered.

When I teach Our Nation’s Foundations in the public Intermediate school where I serve as a Library Specialist, I include an interactive bulletin board for sharing opinions. This is my small effort to combat the troubling trend of the politically correct oppression of opinions. After I present a lesson, I post questions inviting my students to respond to the historical founding facts I’ve shared. The bulletin board display states the process for forming an opinion: Facts, filtered through Principles, create supportable Opinions. I reward every student for sharing a properly developed opinion. I remind them that we do not have to agree with each other, but we must respect one another.

In late 2016, I hosted a Presidential Debate Club for interested students. While only one of them decided she could actually adopt the platform of one of the candidates for reasons of debate, they all learned that emotion would be their weakest argument.

Resorting to emotion to support opinions instead of facts and principles tempts us to attack the opponent instead of his or her argument. This is a sure way to lose the debate. While there is some contention concerning the author of this quote, the truth is timeless and timely:

I post the above meme as soon as a social media debate opponent makes the mistake of attacking me personally. This is proof that my adversary has depleted his or her knowledge of facts and principles and is scrambling to “win” at all costs, even if the price is dignity. Sometimes, I will add the text, “Your opinions and arguments are now irrelevant to me.” Then, I abandon the thread. This person is not interested in finding common ground founded on factual evidence and solid principles and my time and efforts are better spent elsewhere.

Be aware that your job as a competent debater may involve educating your audience. Often, the person who jumps into the fray to “teach you a lesson” is the one most in need of instruction. Define the terms you will be using. For example, Nationalism is not synonymous with Patriotism. Both parties must be aware of the difference between these terms in order to begin to discover the common ground regarding the future of our Republic. Cite your sources when making your arguments. This lends third-party credence to your points and, perhaps more importantly, reinforces your own convictions. Those willing to participate in debate must be just as willing to learn more about the issues and be humble enough to amend false conclusions.

By establishing your own ground rules and the boundaries of debate that do not descend into vitriol, your arguments will become indisputable, even if others do not accept them. And, you get to preserve your self-respect and integrity.

Michael Sandel offers an illuminating TED talk on this very subject. His bio declares, “Michael Sandel is one of the best-known American public intellectuals. The London Observer calls him ‘one of the most popular teachers in the world” and indeed his lectures at Harvard draw thousands of students eager to discuss big questions of modern political life.’”



Would you like to win your next debate? Consider Sandel’s advice: Identify the essential principle in your argument. What is really important to the subject? What should we all agree on? Keep aiming toward that in your statements. Don’t be afraid to address shared moral convictions. Perhaps these are the very issues that must be debated if we are to hope to rediscover common ground.

What are the essential principles to restore our Republic?

What are the shared moral convictions of Americans?

Until these subjects are settled, all other arguments will be in vain.



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