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To debate or not to debate – that is the question

“Democracy thrives on civil debate, but we’re shamefully out of practice.”

— Michael Sandel (TED2010)

On September 26, 1960, Richard Nixon, the Vice-President of the United States, and Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy engaged in the first of four televised presidential debates.

The far less experienced JFK, the audience swayed no doubt by his Kennedy looks and ease in front of the cameras, won handily and rode the coattails of his successes to the most narrow of victories at the polls.

This set the tone for Nixon, comparatively haggard-looking in that historic first debate after recent medical treatment, to steadfastly refuse to engage in further televised debates ahead of the 1968 and 1972 elections.

Nevertheless, the Great Debates, and the numbers they generated, ensured that the format would not be discarded by America, but instead would become a significant feature in choosing the next President of the United States.

As Hillary Clinton discovered, though, despite winning each of the three debates against Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential election, success there does not necessarily equate to victory at the polls.

But at least the debates were held.

In Britain, upon whose system the Bermudian political framework was founded, since 2010, Leaders’ Debates are not only expected, but they are demanded.

The unwillingness this year of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, as the only leaders who could realistically become prime minister, to debate one another — Corbyn took his place among other leaders rather belatedly; May’s excuses, one less plausible than the other, revolved around a desire only to speak directly to the voters — can be seen as a blip rather than a sea change.

Which brings us to Bermuda and the refusal/unwillingness of our leaders to debate. Not only now, but historically.

With a multibillion-dollar national debt, social and economic inequity, failing education system, youth unemployment, racial instability and an ageing population putting a strain on the pension fund, you would think they would have a great deal to talk about — even when the temperatures are raised by the spotlight that a live debate would induce.

But in successive elections of recent history, there has been no appetite by ruling parties to go head-to-head. In 2007 and 2012, the Progressive Labour Party, as the entity that ran government, first saw no need to have Ewart Brown square off against Michael Dunkley, of the United Bermuda Party, and then for Paula Cox to give the time of day to Craig Cannonier, of the newly formed One Bermuda Alliance.

With both parties having been in communication for Dunkley and David Burt to debate, that may be about to change — or will it?

Will they instead rely largely on media messaging — through negative advertising and the poisonous worst excesses of social media — to influence the public that the OBA or PLP are the right way to go for Bermuda?

“Forward together, not back” and “Putting Bermudians first” are slogans we can agree we are tired of seeing without having the politicians speak to the issues that concern Bermudians.

The recently released platforms did that to some extent, but, surely, to repeat Oliver Twist’s most famous quote: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

So what do we know on the debate front?

First, let’s dismiss the derisory attempt by Eron Hill and Generation Next to force the Premier of Bermuda into a national debate. It was naive on the part of a young man who has been antigovernment in his writings for all of the OBA’s time in power, and the request was met with the dismissive silence that it merited.

Burt was all for it, but why wouldn’t he? A debate hosted and moderated by disaffected youth at the home of the pro-opposition Bermuda Industrial Union is akin to playing Monopoly with house money.

With that unsurprisingly unrealised exercise confined to the deepest recesses of a corner office, here is what we know:

• That The Royal Gazette reached out to both parties on June 26 to propose the hosting and moderating of a would-be debate

• That the OBA chairwoman Lynne Woolridge wrote to her PLP counterpart, Scott Simmons, on June 26 inquiring into the Opposition’s willingness to engage in debate

• That Simmons responded in the affirmative two days later, with the recommendation that the debate be held today at 7pm at a venue to be determined

• That, as of this writing, 11 days have passed since and we are none the wiser

What we know also is that if the debate does not happen today, it is highly unlikely to take place at all — unless those who vote on July 18 are deemed to be of significantly greater import than those who will take part in the three days of advanced polling starting tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the negative advertising extolling the worst in the other guy, the incessant slogan flogging, the unadulteratedly vicious personal attacks on social media and the succession of press conferences that do little to move the conversation forward — as if media organisations have nothing better to do with their time — will continue until the polls open on July 18.

It is a sad state of affairs and contributes to a collective ignorance within an electorate that is resultantly guided by popularity and the vexingly inevitable issue of race.

While the social-media goons are not representative of the majority of Bermudians, nor are they the brightest, the rhetoric often found there is creeping into our way of life. Yet another one of the worst elements of American society sucking us into its clutches.

But our westerly neighbours are gathering a conscience, with politics pinpointed as having a role in the degradation of American society.

A CBS News poll last month returned a verdict that said that 73 per cent of Americans believed the present tone of political debate encouraged violence.

Sixty-eight per cent agreed also that the tone and civility of US political debate is getting worse. For the United States of America, read Bermuda.

It is interesting that Burt says the PLP aims to form a collaborative government if it wins the election because collaboration has not been a mantra that could be applied to either party during one of the most divisive periods in our political history.

It is with their well-prescribed tenets of disagreement, intolerance and coercion in mind that we close with a few more sage words from Michael Sandel:

“A better way to mutual respect is to engage directly with the moral convictions citizens bring to public life rather than to require that people leave their deepest moral convictions outside politics before they enter. That, it seems to me, is a way to begin to restore the art of the democratic argument.”

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