It is difficult to exaggerate the low quality and excessiveness of political debate in the United States. Although this offense to public sensibility is most apparent during the presidential campaign, it seems to have become endemic to our political processes at all levels.
However, the fault for this malady cannot be placed exclusively on the candidates themselves. There is an equal responsibility to be born by a rapacious media, whose members are eager to advance their own careers by stirring controversy and scandal. But on a deeper level the journalists, like the politicians, are only captive of a system that predetermines the methods they employ.
No doubt, one generalized source of this pattern is the adversarial method of our judicial procedure. In recent decades its tendency to rancor has been further exacerbated by the Deconstructive technique of Postmodern law. Such factors have come to shape our political processes and even the ethic of our journalistic media. There may be no remedy for these influences, but it might be useful to attempt to put our approach to public affairs into perspective.
One way of doing so is to look at the practices of our earliest political forebears, the ancient Greeks. By this means we can gain perspective on a variety of methods of discourse and understand how our particular approach compares with other ways of transacting the public business.
There are several ways of viewing the variety of methods of public discussion that prevailed among the Greeks and have survived down to modern times. But for purposes of understanding American practice they are best seen in four categories: the dialogue, the principled, the rhetorical, and the disputatious.
The first of these, the dialogue, is perhaps the best known. It was the method employed by the philosopher Socrates and by his disciple, Plato. The dialogue can be summarized as an approach where the presenter is encouraged to set forth his idea. As he does so, his listeners may ask questions or raise objections. However, their purpose is not to discredit or contradict. Instead, it is to assist the speaker to present his ideas and to elaborate or resolve potentially unclear or problematic aspects. This method is often used today in diplomatic proceedings and, perhaps surprisingly, within the governing strata of the Chinese system.
The second approach to discussion, what might be called the reasoned or principled, is based on an appeal to abstract concepts and ideals, and to logic. This type of exchange begins with a set of agreed upon propositions or theories and pursues them to their logical conclusion. This more detached and impersonal approach to finding agreement was set forth by Parmenides. It is a type of discussion especially prevalent in the affairs of Continental Europe. Because the region is divided by many languages, European affairs are often transacted on a high level of intellection—employing principles and ideals that transcend language.
The third mode of Greek discourse, the rhetorical, involved a thorough training in manner and speech–but not in a superficial sense. Rather, it sought a deep cultivation of individual character, the formation of a commanding persona. The rhetorician was less concerned to win the argument and more concerned to win the audience. He relied in his presentation not so much on a set of facts as on the way those facts were presented. In ancient Athens Isocrates was the first great teacher of rhetoric and Demosthenes was its most famous exemplar. Today the British are by far the most visible practitioners of this art, employing it to advantage for both diplomatic and political purpose as well as for journalistic influence.
Finally, in ancient Athens the tendency to argumentation and casuistry was made most famous by the Sophists. Their rise in the public courts to enormous wealth and political power was exemplified by Gorgias and Protagoras. Able to argue on behalf of any cause, their technique was especially useful when parsing the phrases of a written text. Their tendency to disputation, called eristic by the Greeks, became a pattern for the adversarial methods of American law, as it eventually came to color the atmosphere of American political affairs.
What is the usefulness of this glimpse at ancient history? In fact, a number of conclusions might be drawn from it. One is that there are several modes of public discourse. Each has advantages and disadvantages for establishing the quality of public conversation. When we apply these examples to the American situation several conclusions might be drawn. But perhaps two are most important.
The first is that the transaction of political affairs does not have to be inherently or destructively contentious. It does not have to work on the basis of opposing parties or rival interest groups. Realizing this it is also important to remember that our current approach is the result of a series of choices. Our political discussion does not have to be conducted on the present level. Moreover, the question is not so much one of harmony and civility as it is one of intelligence and usefulness.
That thought leads to a second conclusion: It is well and good for politicians to campaign and for citizens to participate in the political process. Those are, after all, the conventional means by which to influence government affairs. Yet, while doing these things, it might be useful to embark upon a discussion about the way public matters are actually transacted in this country.
For my part, I believe this could be a very useful topic to explore in the public forum. I would suggest the discussion take the form of a dialogue. Whether we realize it or not, we have inherited much of our political method from the Ancient Greeks. Perhaps it is possible they have more to teach us.