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A Confederacy of Dunces

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Effective Debate - We Can Do Better

A Confederacy of Dunces

”When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathon Swift


The Presidential debates for the 2020 election has been a travesty. Those who bothered to watch learned little that will assist them at the polls this year. Why?


The Commission consists of the following personnel: The board, which includes former Sens. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice); former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson; John Griffen, managing director of investment bank Allen & Co.; Yvonne Hao, managing director of Cove Hill Partners, a private-equity firm; Antonia Hernandez, president and chief executive of the California Community Foundation, a philanthropy; the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University, who recently contracted COVID-19 after visiting the White House without a mask; Newton N. Minow, attorney and former chair of the Federal Communications Commission; and Richard D. Parsons, former CEO and chairman of Time Warner. The commission’s executive director is Janet H. Brown, who has served in that role since the commission’s founding in 1987.


I question if any of them have any training or experience with “debate.” Anyone who debated in high school or college knows that the formats adopted by the Commission are seriously flawed. But, in reality, this “confederacy of dunces” has lost its way.


A disclosure. I debated in college for four years. The format used for those competition would serve the electorate well. Here is why.


  • The proposition is clearly stated.
  • The proposition sets out a problem to be addressed.
  • The affirmative receives 10 minutes of time, uninterrupted, to address the problem.
  • The negative receives 10 minutes, uninterrupted,to address the problem.
  • The affirmative receives 10 minutes to offer a plan to address the problem.
  • The negative receives 10 minutes to respond to the plan and to offer a counter plan.
  • Each side then receives 5 minutes for summary.


Take any topic at issue in this election. Covid, the economy, health care, foreign policy, domestic unrest, social security. Under this format the people would hear from the candidates. The moderators would be reduced to time keepers. Over the course of three (or more) debates all these topics could be throughly vetted - through the candidates, not the comments of the moderators.


And speaking of moderators, remove the media from that role. In their place call upon academics who understand debate - Lawrence Tribe of Harvard Law School and Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the Boalt Hall University of California Berkeley Law School (both National Collegiate Debate Competition finalists) or Robert George of Princeton University and John Garvey, President of Catholic University.


Somehow we the people are captive to this “confederacy.” As credentialed as these commission members may appear, they know nothing about effective and useful debate. And we are the worse for their ignorance.