Debate is, or should be, the civil and serious exchange of ideas and arguments among candidates about the priorities of the community they seek to represent and the practical solutions that best address that community’s chief concerns —not exactly what we are getting in this strange political year in the presidential campaign and debates so far.
We should remember, however, that as important as the American president is, we are a federal republic with divided powers and elected officials at every level of government, whose collective policies impact our way of life more directly than the presidency.
At the presidential level, American democracy seems to be at a political crossroads, maybe even a crisis of leadership. In 1830, the French author Alexis de Tocqueville traveled across the United States in a quest to understand American democracy because he grasped that it represented the future for his own country. He observed that Americans, often pressed for time even then, frequently selected their leaders and elected officials in haste, not always considering judiciously their merits.
It is commonplace to say that American democracy is founded on equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Above all, we emphasize individual liberty and responsibility. But politics is the art of figuring out how we can live together in a way that makes not just living possible, but also living well. As such, it is our democratic responsibility to educate ourselves and each other about the issues affecting our communities and the merit of the candidates who seek to represent us.
It is also our responsibility to bring the next generation of voters and leaders into the political process and to model civil and thoughtful political participation for them.
In 2014, the Utah Debate Commission launched its inaugural debate season, as a nonpartisan consortium of universities, media partners, business and civic leaders to create a regular system of debating. The commission invites candidates for statewide and national-level office to participate in a discussion of the issues on university campuses across the state.
The commission chose university campuses as a way to invite Millennials and their succeeding generation, Digital Natives, to the political table to engage them in a discussion of the policy issues for which they will be accountable in the future. We need to talk about politics in a way that asks young citizens to think matters through for themselves and become lifelong voters and leaders.
On Oct. 17, at 6 p.m. in Weber State University’s Val A. Browning Austad Auditorium, students and community members will have the chance to hear, question and study the candidates vying to represent them in Congress. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop and his challenger, Dr. Peter Clemens, will participate in the hour-long debate, which will also be broadcast live on TV, radio and the web.
The public is encouraged to submit questions for the candidates on the Utah Debate Commission website. The 1st Congressional District has plenty of issues on the table, from land use, to education funding, health care, maintaining Hill Air Force Base as a vital contributor to the economy of Northern Utah, and air quality, among others. It is up to us to keep our political conversation vital and worthy of our democratic traditions.
Let’s show the presidential candidates how they should debate to inform versus defame.
Dr. Carol McNamara is director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University, a faculty member in the Department of Political Science, and a member of the Utah Debate Commission. Twitter: @carolmcnamara10.