LAWRENCE – If your goal is a free-flowing, fair discussion of crucial issues facing the nation, there is no valid reason to object to a computerized debating arena, according to a University of Kansas educator and debate coach whose students have been arguing remotely for months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brett Bricker is associate specialist and assistant director of the nationally ranked debate program in KU’s Department of Communication Studies. He said his students have been debating virtually all semester with no problem, even though none of them had done so before.
“Our national tournament in March was canceled,” Bricker said. “So in early April we started practicing Zoom debates. The initial difficulties we had were simple fixes, like making sure every student had a stable internet connection and access to a video camera and microphone. But other than that, it's been almost a seamless transition.”
And while it’s not exactly the same as standing across the stage from your opponent, Bricker said virtual debating gets the job done.
“A lot of the same benefits from debates still happen,” Bricker said. “Most of it is still easily interactive. We still have judge commentary. People still give speeches at a relatively high rate of speed because the technology is strong enough to handle it.”
The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced Oct. 8, after a contentious event Sept. 29 in Cleveland between President Donald Trump and Democractic challenger Joe Biden — and Trump’s subsequent diagnosis with COVID-19 infection — that the second of three debates set for Oct. 15 would be held virtually. The commission’s brief announcement did not address the potential for the moderator to shut off a debater's microphone should he continue talking after being directed to stop.
The commission then announced Oct. 9 that the remote debate Oct. 15 was off but that the Oct. 22 debate remained on, “(s)ubject to health security considerations ...”
Bricker said he was struck by one of Trump’s statements rejecting the remote format.
“Trump saying ‘that's not what debate is about’ really struck a chord with me, because I don't think the debate changes much at all, especially for someone who would have already been viewing it through the technological medium of a TV screen.
“I don't think it's going to change very much about any interaction,” Bricker said. “Maybe it would alter small, nonverbal things, like those moments when (Democratic vice presidential candidate and U.S. senator) Kamala Harris looks at Vice President (Michael) Pence and ... they clearly meet eyes, because they won't be looking sideways at each other anymore. But other than that, everything's basically exactly the same.”
Bricker firmly believes that, while the platform does not matter, debates do.
“I think, when we're having an extremely important national moment, where tens of millions of people are tuned into presidential debates, it clearly is something that will change opinions,” Bricker said. “I reject the view that we have hundreds of millions of people in our country that have already permanently decided which partisan camp they are in. There are people that live busy lives and are just tuning into the election now. These are their first real thoughts about the election and who says what and who thinks what and which party believes what. So I think that these debates matter, and I don't think that the online platform at all mitigates the value of the debates.
“If the value of the debate for Trump is that he gets to speak in front of an audience and to say whatever he wants to, whenever he wants to, it probably does mitigate that advantage. But for our democracy and for our country, I think these debates are very, very important to have in whatever format we can.
“That is because we can have town halls and rallies all we want, but seeing these two people be moderated and have their views exposed to hard questions and have followup questions to their answers is something we don't see enough of. I think it is important for understanding or digging into their positions, because otherwise it's easy for them to deny things that they've said or done.”
“What this election needs is difficult questions to be asked, and that can only happen in a debate format.”