The State of the Presidential Debate

12 September 2016
Jill Lepore

“We are debating free speech because its values are under siege,” Wendy Kaminer said during an Open to Debate formerly known as Intelligence Squared U.S. debate at Yale in March. Intelligence Squared has been hosting fantastic Oxford-style debates since 2006, underwritten by a New York philanthropist named Robert Rosenkranz. Its debates, which last for an hour and forty-five minutes, are moderated by ABC News’s John Donvan, broadcast on public radio, available as a podcast, and archived on YouTube. Teaming up with Kaminer to defend the resolution “Free Speech is threatened on campus,” John McWhorter argued that “many of the things that we’re being told we shouldn’t even discuss, and that the mere discussion of it constitutes a space becoming unsafe, are really things which, in an intelligent and moral environment, people will reasonably have discussions about.”

Inspired by Intelligence Squared, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently launched a series of Oxford-style debates on college campuses. The motto of the debates is “Free to Disagree!” Greg Lukianoff is the president of the foundation. (With Jonathan Haidt, Lukianoff wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a spirited polemic about the decline of free speech on campus published in The Atlantic.) “Debate doesn’t have to be this miserable, burdensome thing,” Lukianoff told me. Like most people involved in the movement to revive debate, he thinks that what’s happening on college campuses can’t be separated from what’s happening on the campaign trail or during televised debates.

Intelligence Squared has gathered some sixty thousand signatures on a petition at, calling on the Commission on Presidential Debates to adopt Oxford rules, so that, during a series of hour-long debates on simple resolutions “Give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship” or “The United States intervenes abroad too often” each candidate would make a seven-minute opening statement, and the two would then question each other. “The format and the strictures of debating on a specific motion allow an audience to listen to two sides of a debate,” Donovan told me. “And that’s twice as many sides as many people have ever heard.”