While the president was demanding a fourth debate with his challenger, an opinion piece in The New York Times suggested that debates be scrapped altogether. Yes, the debates have certainly devolved over the years but this is a classic “throw the baby out with the bathwater” reaction. Let’s fix them instead. Here are three changes to elevate the debates and increase their value to the public:
1.) Ditch the audience. In her NYT piece, Elizabeth Drew wrote that debates were less about conveying a vision or a plan than they were about upstaging the opponent. “Points went to snappy comebacks and one-liners. Witty remarks drew laughs from the audience and got repeated for days and remembered for years,” she said. She’s not wrong, of course. But it’s the debate format that has helped to create the reality TV atmosphere. The candidates have been playing to the audience; they look for applause or a laugh. Let’s get serious and let’s remove the audience. The point might be made moot because of the pandemic this year but the editorial board of the Washington Post recently endorsed this idea, calling the debates “quip contests.” We’ll gain time, engagement, and potentially more substantive responses.
2.) Level the field. I mean this literally. The candidates should be seated, anchored to their chairs. The freewheeling Town Hall format, where the candidates roam the stage, should be banned. In 2016, candidate Trump tried to intimidate Secretary Clinton when he alternated between standing and pacing back-and-forth behind her. Clinton said he was breathing down her neck, which made her feel "incredibly uncomfortable." Politico magazine called it "the ugliest debate ever seen." Pressing a physical advantage—bullying—must not be allowed. And having the candidates seated will also help mitigate any height discrimination, or “heightism,” where taller people are perceived to be stronger, and better leaders.
3.) Check the facts. A consequence of our glorious First Amendment is that political speech is highly protected—essentially any half-truth or lie may be told. While there are plenty of post-debate analyses, it’s too late. Many viewers tune-out after the practiced smiles and forced handshakes. And our brains tend to cling to misinformation even after it's been refuted. We need real-time (or near real-time) fact-checking. If IBM's Watson computer can win at Jeopardy!, why can't we get an indication of veracity while the debate is still in progress? Let’s use technology to help the experts to sift through speech transcripts and testimony; almanacs and atlases; laws, regulations and policy statements; credible survey data, and non-partisan news articles, journals, and research reports. Let’s help ensure the public gets the facts and not the flimflam.
While we’re more polarized than ever and fewer people are undecided, more information, more opportunity for side-by-side comparison, is still crucial to the democratic process. In a society that’s increasingly stressed by the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, systemic racism, and so many other issues, political discussion can be dispiriting, infuriating, and sometimes incendiary. But, as Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, “If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”
Paul Oestreicher, PhD is a recognized expert in strategic communications, marketing, and public affairs, and issues, crisis and reputation management. He is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table and the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. Follow him @pauloestreicher.