May 18, 2024

Democratic Debates Exhibit Familiar Staples of Public Argument

Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
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By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

The debates for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination begin Wednesday, June 26, The New York Times reported. Candidates will vie for public opinion in hopes of challenging incumbent president Donald Trump in next year’s general election. Public argument by political nominees is a staple of the election process.

Politician at podium giving speech
The first Democratic primary presidential debate is set to begin this week. Photo by Salivanchuk Semen/Shutterstock

Twenty Democratic candidates will answer questions on two nights this week—10 candidates each, June 26 and June 27—in the first round of the party’s presidential debates. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, former Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg—mayor of South Bend, Indiana—are just some of the high-profile candidates who will take the stage this week. They and 15 others will speak on policy and party issues during moderated, public discussions which will be broadcast live nationwide. This form of public debate between presidential hopefuls has been a major part of America’s election process since the nation’s inception.

Qualities and Qualifiers of Public Arguments

The definition of what a truly “public argument” is can be slightly more specific than it may seem. “Arguments in the public sphere have two principle features,” said Dr. David Zarefsky, the Owen L. Coon Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. The first necessary feature is that those arguments represent a general audience and are addressed or broadcast to that audience. In other words, the argument must be easily accessible to anyone who wishes to view it.

The second feature is that those arguments affect an entire community. “In the personal sphere, arguments are limited in their effect to the people who are actually participating,” Dr. Zarefsky said. “The clear opposite of that is the public sphere, where the arguments affect the entire community, even those who are not involved in the disputes.”

Dr. Zarefsky also noted that these arguments tend to center around the future of the community. “They typically involve deliberation, they are action-oriented, and they raise the key question, ‘What shall we do?’” he said. “So, public argument is most typically about resolutions of policy and the issues that concern choices to make.”

Politicized Tools of Public Arguments

Public debate has a very precise set of tools and fallacies. Representatives like political candidates often use these in their discourse, and the public is beginning to catch on.

“In presenting public arguments, ‘persuasive definitions’ play a significant role,” Dr. Zarefsky said. “They are definitions that conceal arguments; they involve the use of terms that have a whole substructure of argument that is never made explicit. In a public controversy, if one can get a term to be accepted generally, then it is as if one has made the whole underlying argument.”

Dr. Zarefsky pointed specifically to the phrase “death tax” to illustrate this issue. “When it was proposed to repeal the estate tax, those who favored repealing the estate tax referred to it as the death tax and said ‘death shouldn’t be a taxable event,’” he said.

Similarly, politicians may use exaggerated “ultimate terms” to propose policy. “It was fairly common in the 1980s and 1990s to hear policy proposals referred to as promoting family values—’family values’ is a term that was originally coined by the conservative side of the political spectrum,” Dr. Zarefsky said. “But by the 1990s, liberals were talking about daycare, the Family Leave Act, and measures to control child abuse as ‘promoting family values.’ So the idea here is that the term ‘family’ is a very positive term, and so if one links one’s proposal to this very positive term, one will enhance the chances of it being acceptable to a broader public.”

The Democratic candidates’ debates this week will clearly fit the definitions of public argument. Their accessibility and intents of representation and a concern for the future put them squarely in that category. The candidates are also likely to use some of the popular tools of debate in a public sphere like persuasive definitions, ultimate terms, and several others. How the public will respond to each candidate is the next crucial step towards the primaries and the 2020 general election.

Dr. David Zarefsky contributed to this article. Dr. Zarefsky is the Owen L. Coon Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, where he has taught for over 30 years. He earned his B.S., master’s degree, and Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

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