Commentary

Healthy public debate is the essence of democracy

September 1, 2022 3:20 am

Gov. Mike DeWine (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal / Republish photo only with original story)

Most folks think of the Acropolis and the Parthenon when they think of the democracy of ancient Athens, but those were places of worship, which some do conflate with politics these days. It was on another hill, the Pnyx, where Athenian democracy grinded forward with all its inherent messiness.

The Pynx was where, as early as 507 BCE — after the reforms of Cleisthenes transferred political power to the citizenry — Athenian voters gathered in assembly to hear speakers make their case before casting black or white stone ballots into a large jar, which was broken for counting.

Athenian democracy was a form of direct democracy, where eligible citizens (about 10% to 20% of the total Athenian population) decided on issues and proposals directly.

By contrast, in America, we obviously have a Constitutional Republic — a form of representative democracy — where the people vote for their representatives to public office theoretically in service of constituents and their interests.

In either or any form, healthy, robust debate is critical to the functioning of small-d democracy.

Those who would presume to be the embodied representation of the interests, needs, and desires of millions of people owe it to voters to subject themselves to the intellectual rigors of honest debate.

The independent Ohio Debate Commission announced earlier this week that it has scheduled debates for Ohio’s 2022 General Election. This election will decide representation for the interests, needs, and desires of more than 11.7 million Ohioans, and includes every statewide executive office including governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and auditor; as well as Ohio Supreme Court races for the chief justice and two other justice seats; and Ohio’s next U.S. Senator.

The commission’s schedule includes a gubernatorial debate Oct. 10 and a U.S. Senate debate Oct. 12. They plan to host a chief justice forum on one of those dates as well. They’ll hold all three events at the Akron-Summit County public library’s main auditorium.

But thus far, only the Democratic candidates have agreed to participate. While Democrats Tim Ryan, running for Senate; Nan Whaley, running for governor; and Jennifer Brunner, running for chief justice, have all signed on, Ohio voters have gotten no such commitment from Republicans J.D. Vance, Gov. Mike DeWine, or Sharon Kennedy.

The Ryan and Vance campaigns appear to be working out some possible debates, but perhaps not necessarily the Ohio Debate Commission’s.

DeWine, meanwhile, has done just about everything to say he doesn’t want to directly debate Whaley, without explicitly saying he doesn’t want to directly debate Whaley.

Take this latest statement from his campaign, which avoids any firm line of commitment to the independent commission’s governor debate: “Throughout the fall, Governor DeWine and his opponent will have ample opportunity to outline their very different records and visions for Ohio. This includes during last week’s Ohio Association of Regional Councils Forum, the Vote for Ohio Kids forum on October 6, as well as the multiple Ohio newspaper endorsement screenings that have long served as de-facto debates. Transparency and accessibility to leadership matters, which is why Mike DeWine has held more statewide television addresses and press conferences than any Governor in Ohio history.”

The Ohio Debate Commission is a collaboration of civic organizations, media organizations, and universities working to create debates of the highest quality for the highest statewide offices and distribute that content to every corner of the state.

The content of these debates is “pooled” for press insofar as any media outlet can run the debates on their platforms, freely use photos and video produced by the commission during the debates, and share the debates with viewers and readers across the state. That is to say, these debates are “democratized” for equal, fair, robust media distribution to every possible Ohioan interested in their content.

As far as a debate that will reach as many Ohioans as possible while ensuring a high-quality, independently conducted exploration of issues and ideas, it doesn’t get better than the Ohio Debate Commission. This is the debate standard par excellence.

So why are these politicians so hesitant to commit? This is where realpolitik rears its ugly — if for many politicians irresistible — head.

Politicians are very often animals of practical gamesmanship, not integrity.

If a candidate feels strongly enough they have not much to gain, and in fact may have something significant to lose, by appearing before voters to debate an opponent, they will often assiduously avoid doing so.

My estimation is that DeWine doesn’t want to directly debate Whaley because he and his campaign feel the governor has little to gain but much to possibly lose by open public intellectual challenge to his record when it comes to, say, access to abortion, Ohio’s FirstEnergy Corp. political bribery scandal, or his participation in the unconstitutional gerrymandering of state legislative and congressional districts.

I’ll further venture that Vance has only committed to some specific debates, but not the independent debate commission’s, as he sees his biggest practical advantage in venue shopping for more friendly and less challenging atmospheres.

Is this timid, pusillanimous, and undemocratic of them? Of course. Do they expect to pay any price for that? Likely not.

I understand the realpolitik of these calculations, but even so, their stance is cowardly because they seemingly lack the courage of their convictions.

Insofar as they may want to avoid talking about their positions and records on issues that do not poll well for them, presumably they are confident in their own arguments on the issues and that their ideas on, say, immigration, the economy, inflation, or gun laws may be persuasive for many.

Nevertheless, they do not want to stand up and make their cases to the public in an independent, statewide public forum of tête à tête with their opponents.

This renders their political calculations not only cowardly but undemocratic.

And it comes, as Ohio Debate Commission Executive Director Jill Zimon noted, “in an election cycle where voters have indicated how concerned they are about threats to democracy.”

Healthy public debate is the essence of democracy.

The free exchange of ideas is a touchstone of a free and open society.

To cower before that challenge on the rostrum of the American Pynx is an open intellectual insult to the more than 11.7 million people they seek to represent.

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

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