Can a nation built on the principle of “one person, one vote” function when the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is so wide?
That’s the kind of question facing armchair philosophers in this year’s Great American Think-Off, an annual debate in New York Mills, Minn., that’s designed to provoke thought and civil discourse.
A 10-member committee wrestled for months to winnow down 22 philosophical themes to choose this year’s hot-button debate topic: “Income inequality threatens democracy.”
Contestants are invited to submit essays on the subject — pro or con — by April 1. There’s just one catch: Contestants must steer clear of philosophical abstractions and present their case based on their life experience. Finalists will be invited to New York Mills for a debate on June 11 before an audience of about 300. The winner gets $500 and bragging rights.
The Think-Off started in 1993 and now has a loyal following that includes its own groupies, said Pam Mahling, one of the volunteer organizers. She said the last time the concept of democracy took center stage was 15 years ago, and organizers have wanted to revisit the subject.
“So the debate was, in which framework? And we decided that with the political process this year … the income question probably is pretty darned relevant.”
Edward Schiappa, chairman of the Department of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he particularly likes the topic because of its reflection on the presidential race.
“You have the hyper-capitalist [Donald] Trump on one side and the socialist Bernie Sanders on the other. So you know, it’s not a bad year for people to discuss this issue,” said Schiappa, who has served as an unofficial consultant on the Think-Off since the late 1990s when he was a professor of communications studies at the University of Minnesota. “I think the Think-Off is great,” Schiappa said. “I’m so pleased that it carries on year after year and I hope that it regains the visibility back when C-SPAN was covering it.”
Mahling declined to comment on whether the presidential race played a role in the committee’s discussions of this year’s topic. She said the committee members did find themselves debating the relationship between income inequality and democracy, however. “So that’s a good sign.”
“The whole point of the Think-Off is constructive civil debate. We try to adhere to that in our committee as well,” Mahling said.
“One of our most interesting years was the year we had a well-known sex therapist go against a priest arguing that honesty is not always the best policy,” she said. One of the contestants that year was Mac Schneider, who went on to become a state senator in North Dakota.
Alice Martin, another committee member, said the committee members steer clear of party politics and stick to the ideas that drive them. That said, it’s not unusual for Think-Off topics to coincide with world affairs.
For instance, Martin said, in 1998, when the Think-Off asked whether honesty is the best policy, then-President Bill Clinton tried to hedge his denial of a sexual relationship with a White House aide with his now famous phrase, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” And the Think-Off debate over whether the death penalty is ethical in a civilized society took place just before Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death in 1997 for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
“So sometimes the questions have just fallen into exactly the right spot at the right time. But we didn’t hit this [year’s] questions purely because of the political issues.”