The Denizens took their students to Springfield, Illinois earlier this month to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, as well as selected Lincoln historic sites.It gave us a great opportunity to examine the intersection of institutional politics and public communication in the historic work of perhaps the iconic American president. Among the episodes of Lincoln’s mythic history that are highlighted in Springfield is the rivalry between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the “Little Giant” who bested the “Big Giant” in the 1858 US Senate race but lost to him in the 1860 presidential campaign. The seven 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates over “popular sovereignty” and the extension of slavery into US territories were an epic political circus at the time, launched Lincoln into the national spotlight, and became the historic archetype for debate as a component of campaign discourse.
Flash-forward fifty-three years, and we observe a pair of provocative phenomena: a candidate for president using debate challenges as a game of political chicken with opponents, and media pundits pondering whether a debate-driven campaign is actually valuable. What’s going on?