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The Debate System Is Broken

The current debate format allows politicians to take advantage of the media age and speak in generalities and platitudes without showing an in depth grasp of real issues. This must change, and soon.
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Tonight marks the sixth GOP debate. Seven candidates will take the stage, down from approximately 52 in the previous five. The hosting Fox Business Network has promised a substantive debate that will “focus on economic, domestic and international policy issues.” That sounds nice, but we all know that’s complete bullshit. This debate, like the five that came before it, like the three democratic debates this cycle, like basically all the electoral debates we’ve had since the practice as we know it began in 1960, will tell us little we didn’t know about what the candidates believe, fail to challenge them on the strength or weakness of their ideas, and further make a spectacle of our politics

The debate system is broken and needs to be fixed.

The modern presidential debates trace their lineage to the between Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, a series of seven brilliant clashes between the rival U.S. Senate candidates from Illinois. But those debates were remarkably different in form from what we have today. In the Great Debates, one candidate spoke for an hour, the other for an hour and a half, and then a half hour rebuttal from the first speaker. That’s nearly a day’s worth of uninterrupted discourse on slavery – what was then the most divisive issue in American politics.

Contrast that with today’s debates, where candidates elbow their way past one another on the overly crowded stage to join in the inarticulate bickering. The current question and response format hardly reveals what candidates think about the issues. And frankly, if someone can truly explain the nuances of their Iran policy in the space of a pop song, I don’t want them to be the leader of the free world.

That some candidates are able to do so doesn’t demonstrate the strength of their ideas – it demonstrates the candidate’s ability to argue them persuasively. And while those skills important in the art of governance – having a good idea doesn’t mean a lot if you can’t get it through – they are given disproportionate significance by the debates, where uncertainty is ditched in favor of pretending to know everything already.

Because the truth is, uncertainty doesn’t sell, and the modern debate is far more about entertainment than it is about substance. While the platonic form may be the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the modern debate was birthed in 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took to a Chicago soundstage to square off on national TV. That first general election presidential debate came as a result of the rising popularity and prevalence of television, and the medium has – in the nearly six decades since – profoundly impacted not just the debates, but our politics as a whole. It has privileged the televisable – the candidates with the best packaging and the discourse with the least measure. Donald Trump is a racist buffoon with fascist ideations, but no one can deny that he makes for good television – if that weren’t the case, he wouldn’t be on the Sunday morning talk shows seemingly every weekend.

But the process of governing – and the skills and aptitudes that qualify someone to do it –does not translate well to the small screen. If it did, we’d all be watching CSPAN a lot more. But it is vital to engage with the real, but far less sexy, parts of civics and to pierce past that which is entertaining. And that will require that the current system of debating is reformed or replaced.

One solution would be to break up the massive primary debates into a series of smaller ones with fewer candidates at a time, permitting topics to be addressed with greater nuance – and for the moderators to better challenge candidates’ when they fail to make sense or elaborate or when they attempt to duck the question entirely. A smaller democratic debate allowed CNN’s Anderson Cooper to do this in October when he frustrated the candidates’ attempts to pivot to stump speeches during an opening question about each of their biggest perceived liabilities.

On the other hand, it might be more beneficial to have fewer primary debates. While I understand that every network wants to have a crack at hosting and the ratings boost it provides, each debate has become a retread of the one that came before it. Having one debate per party per primary season would elevate its importance, put a higher premium on addressing substantive issues, and still allow candidates to differentiate themselves from one another.

A more radical reform would be to eliminate the debate entirely. In 2008 -- coming off a series of atrocious interviews that revealed she had no concept of the Bush Doctrine, could not name a single major newspaper or magazine, and could see Russia from her back yard – then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin faced off against then-Senator Joe Biden in what should have been a completely lopsided Vice Presidential Debate. But Palin took advantage of glitches in the modern debate format to speak in generalities and platitudes about the issues she seemed to have but a shallow grasp of and to pivot away from those that she didn’t seem to grasp at all. Biden still came out on top, but if one had only watched the debate, they would likely have little concept of the inept candidate the long-form interviews had shown Palin to be. Replacing the soundbite-favoring modern debate with a series of lengthy, probing interviews could give voters not just a sense of a candidate’s rhetorical skills, but also of the depth of his or her grasp of the major issues, the nuance of their policy proposals and philosophy of governance, and their personal history and disposition.

Of course, all of these proposals would require more work of the average citizen, and until we are willing to engage in the deeper, more challenging, and drabber parts of politics, the media is going to continue to cover these issues in the way that has proven to get better ratings.