Thinking how to bridge some of the fractures that have riven our public lives, and increasingly our private lives, too, it’s easy to despair.

How can we ever get beyond blame and vilification, where one side responds to all challenges by talking louder, and seeming to benefit?

The impulse of most Americans, and Mainers, who don’t have strong ideological views, is simply to tune out. And the battles rage on.

One small step might be to revive, in schools and ultimately in politics, the practice of classical debate. It’s “classical” not because it was practiced in ancient Greece or Rome — though it might have been — but because it was part of the early Republic and its long struggle to define a new nation different from any that came before.

“Classical” debate is nothing like the question-and-answer format from a panel of journalists that has become standard for presidential debates on down. Who “won” the debate often turns on a flub, or an impolitic answer, rather than any sense the debaters convinced anyone who didn’t already agree.

Instead, debate is structured around a single proposition, or a small number. The great example is the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, where U.S. Senate candidates from Illinois debated, for hours, the expansion of slavery, then faced off again two years later. Douglas won the first time, but Lincoln became president.

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Earlier, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and the “great compromiser,” Henry Clay, held the Senate gallery spellbound as they debated slavery, and many other topics.

This kind of debate largely died out after the Civil War, the greatest disruption to national life we’ve ever experienced. Yet it continued in schools and colleges, and helped train generations of lawyers, judges, and yes, politicians — the very kind of politician we miss today.

The Oxford Union, founded in 1823 in England, is the oldest debating society in the world. It takes a single proposition, and then challenges two sides to come up with their best arguments in support or opposition.

Famous examples include a 1933 question of whether young men should “under no circumstances fight for King and Country.” A generation still traumatized by the pointless carnage of World War I voted “no,” gaining denunciation from Winston Churchill.

In 1975, famously Euro-phobic Britain was voting on membership in what was then the European Economic Community, and the Union resoundingly voted “yes,” foreshadowing the surprise result. There doesn’t seem to have been a similar debate about Brexit, reversing the process, in 2016.

In America, classical debate lived on mostly in colleges, and some high schools, where debate teams and clubs flourished.

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The most challenging aspect is that positions can be randomly assigned. Rather than taking the stance you’re already comfortable with, and matching wits with opponents, you must come up with reasons why the other side might actually be right.

This can be much more than an intellectual exercise. We’re often told to “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” This is actually doing it.

In the process of considering the “other side” one can find flaws in one’s own position. At the very least, understanding why others think as they do can create empathy across boundaries — though only if things remain civilized, of course.

Then, it isn’t easy just to talk louder, with more outrageous assertions. In the debate room, such tactics lead to justified scorn among a community dedicated to learning.

Perhaps Maine’s finest example is Edmund Muskie, governor from 1954-58 and U.S. senator from 1959-80. Muskie. a man of volcanic temper, regularly berated staff and others who’d displeased him.

Yet he also used anger strategically, especially in committee, when lengthy proceedings droned on.

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On the Senate floor, however, such techniques didn’t work, and Muskie used the full breath of his debating skills. He’s renowned for championing the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, yet his most surprising achievement was the Model Cities Program.

U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine with President Lyndon Johnson. Sun Journal file photo

Part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” Model Cities was languishing when Muskie took it over. When the bill went to the floor, sentiment was still heavily against it, yet in a stirring speech, he turned things around, and it passed easily.

As a result, Portland still benefits from the community planning model the law employed — so different from Bangor and Waterville, where half their downtowns were demolished under previous federal “urban renewal.”

Ed Muskie is, obviously, no longer with us, but we can learn from his example — both his irascibility, and his success in overcoming it.

Confronting those who have different opinions than our own, we can do more than listen. We can — carefully, and in a structured setting — debate.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback.  He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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