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National Opinion The Sophist

Refusing to Debate

In the Hegelian dialectic, the status quo, known as the thesis, always give rise to an antithesis, which challenges the thesis’ ideology. The conflict between the thesis and the antithesis gives rise to the synthesis, which presents itself as an improved version of the thesis, having withstood and internalized the criticisms from the antithesis. This dialectical method theorizes the evolution of our thought processes and ideologies, asserting that only through this battle between thesis and antithesis can any real ideas be formed. From simple disagreements over itineraries to more grandiose discourses over domestic and international policy, we use the Hegelian dialectic in every aspect of our lives; but in politics, this fundamental ideology seems to be quickly fading.

In the time since the 2018 midterm elections, a broad consensus has been formed: with Congress set to be divided between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican Senate where compromise is already an issue, it stands to reason that the hyper-partisanship that has been on the rise since even before the 2016 election will reach greater and more dangerous heights. And one need not look far to see the evidence of this. In the lead up to election night, more and more candidates embraced the trend of refusing to debate their opponents.

The refusal to debate was especially prevalent in uncompetitive races. In reliably Republican Alabama, incumbent Governor Kay Ivey consistently refused to debate her Democratic challenger Walt Maddox, saying to AL.com that she had “no plans to debate” and had simply not received the invitation on multiple occasions. Ivey’s campaign had also responded to Maddox’s several debate invitations by accusing Maddox of constantly changing his political stances, stating that “the person Walt Maddox should be debating is himself.” Ivey similarly refused to debate any of her Republican primary opponents. And while critics lambasted Ivey for this tactic, the incumbent governor won reelection easily, sweeping Maddox by more than over 19 points on Election Day.

Similarly, in the historically Republican Iowa 4th District, incumbent Rep. Steve King, who has consistently been embroiled in controversy due to racially incendiary comments, refused to debate his Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten. King simply stated that a debate was unnecessary, telling Radio Iowa that “nobody comes to [him] and says ‘I don’t know where you stand on an issue.’” King has refused to debate in the past, having also done so in 2016 against his Democratic challenger Kim Weaver. King went on to defeat Weaver by 20 points in 2016, and survived again in 2018, defeating Scholten by a little over three points.

And this issue is not isolated to party lines. Even in primaries, this lack of debate has appeared. Take the Democratic race between then-incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley and then-challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, where Crowley, citing scheduling conflicts, skipped two debates against Ocasio-Cortez. This move was widely panned, with the New York Times Editorial Board stating that he was “leaving voters to wonder” if they were “chopped liver.” But even the Times didn’t find this out of the norm, stating that Crowley was “far from the first candidate to decline to debate a challenger he is heavily favored to beat.”

But what does this mean? If the partisan nature of politics has evolved to such a degree that basic discussion with one’s political opponent is considered unnecessary, what is the point of it all? Should voters not hear different opinions? The assumption that party loyalty has become so ingrained an aspect of politics that simple debate over the issues affecting us all is no longer a basic requisite of running for office is deeply unsettling. Furthermore, the fact that this tactic even finds its way into debates between members of the same political party demonstrates how much this issue has become exacerbated, to the point where politicians refuse to even give further publicity to anyone who could challenge their hold on power.

And to look at the other side, one could say that debates could actually hurt voters instead of benefiting them, muddling perceptions and previously accepted facts with grandstanding and distortion. There is indeed proof of this; in the 2016 Trump-Clinton debates, one only needs to see the sheer amount of lies or mistruths by Trump and even Clinton in those debates, leading various news outlets to have to release fact checks after every debate. However, the accountability that is provided by media outlets is a successful counter to prevent this distortion of the truth for voters. The dialectical approach that allows voters to truly see a candidate’s positions and the propagation of truth by media outlets are not mutually exclusive. It is these things coupled together that create the comprehensive view of a situation that all voters ought to have before they submit ballots on Election Day.

The suppression of the Hegelian antithesis on the political stage should alarm all proponents of the democratic process. While for some incumbents, there have been political ramifications of this form of ignorance—such as Crowley losing his seat to Ocasio-Cortez—this has largely gone unpunished by voters. Ivey and Kingwon their elections easily, providing further legitimacy to this tactic. And looking towards 2020, this tactic looms over all the races once more. While the presidential race and more competitive congressional races are almost certain to see debates, the normalization of refusal within our political lexicon forces us to consider the possibility that, one day, even the presidency won’t be safe from it.. And that in itself should be truly terrifying.