Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Something Without Moderation

By Michael AlterPublished October 22, 2015

As the 2016 Presidential Election approaches, more and more debates will be had between the major party candidates running for the highest office in the land. Michael Alter looks at how effective our debates are, and suggests a novel idea to change things up.

By Michael Alter, 10/22/2015
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Like most people watching the two Republican debates of this primary cycle, I enjoyed myself quite a bit. True, that enjoyment was primarily derived from Trump bashing everyone on stage for everything from differences on immigration policy to how their face looks, but enjoyment nonetheless. Debate watching has become a national pastime, especially with the extraordinarily large number of candidates seeking to stand next to Justice Roberts in January 2017. But that's simply a continuation of a trend, a trend that includes drinking games, memes, rapid social media commentary, and laughing about it the next day at work. I can assume that the Democratic debates will be less raucous simply because there will only be 6 candidates on stage and Trump won't be one of them, but principally they will be much the same.
            Along with my enjoyment, there was a significant amount of despair. We can laugh all we want, but at the end of the election one of these individuals will become the most powerful politician in the world. And, as you might have been able to guess by my list of debate-related activities, these debates are jokes, more comedy act than political event. These debates in particular have been unusually loud because of the need to whittle down a field larger than any in modern American history, but that does not change the fact that while whittling may be a useful function, it should not be the only one, especially given that the candidate elimination so far has seemed to be based on whether or not they have a supply of quick-witted (or dim-witted, actually) comebacks at the ready. We have them together in a room; let's do something with them.
            Other nations have political debates during their election cycles, but you might be surprised by how much the American political establishment has influenced electoral practices throughout the world. The UK had debates earlier this year in preparation for their general election in May, but it might surprise people to learn that this was only the second time in British history a series of televised debates occurred, and the first time was for the 2010 election. People were complaining in Britain about the trend towards more personalized politics, in that a parliamentary system where voters primarily vote for a party and not a prime minister was not suited for a presidential style debate. Those complaints went against the fact that tens of millions of people tuned in to watch. Build a fire, they will come.
            Countries like Ireland and Canada have debates that are often the leaders of the three or four largest parties in a TV studio, with just the leaders and a moderator. Those debates eliminate the immediate audience appeals from the debaters and keep time better, but they often end up feeling like extended interviews than debates and candidates don't necessarily feel the same pressure to think creatively on the fly without an audience. Again, that works better for parliamentary systems where parties have greater cohesion and the leader can put forward the party's platform in an extended way to a mass audience. For better or worse, the United States is the largest presidential democracy in the world, and our debates have to be different to meet our needs.
            Debates have come a long way since Nixon/Kennedy. I've never understood the arguments from the past Supreme Court justices that we should not televise proceedings of the court until this year for two reasons. One was Justice Breyer on Colbert saying how television would immediately lead people to conclude things from the parties' appearances and not their arguments. The other was the debate season this cycle. Of course these televised and social-media-infused debates would be dominated by Trump; he's known how to use television to grab attention for years. Any attempt to moderate that would fail miserably.
            So let's un-moderate them. That's right: the usual format of candidates on stage answering questions from a moderator before getting a chance to go at each other? Get rid of the moderator. Throw caution to the wind; tell the debaters that this debate is on their economic policies, their foreign policies, their health and education policies, or whatever other topic that's appropriate; invite only four of them at a time, have the audience there but have them agree to be silent and have the lights arranged so that the candidates can't see them, put them around a table so they don't have to pretend to strike a commanding pose, give them two hand-held microphones and a clock, and turn on the cameras.
            Why do I think this could work? Two reasons primarily come to mind; the first is simply that too many debates seem like they consist of interviews between the moderator and the candidates. A debate is supposed to be about a clash of ideas, of policies, of principles, not a collective Q&A session. Candidates want to engage directly with each other; we shouldn't make that a separate part of the debate. That is the debate! Secondly, I feel like the moderator sometimes interferes too much for the debate's own good; just when two or three candidates are starting to lay into each other over a difference on tax policy, the moderator says it's time to shift to Russo-American relations. Other times, the moderator provides cover for candidates who might not want to talk about something for fear of not knowing the issue well enough or saying something damaging. The last debate was clear after about half an hour: if a candidate wanted to talk about an issue, all they had to do was make a big enough noise and JakeTapper would call on them. Some candidates didn't speak on some topics at all. That should not happen. Moderators should not be there to save candidates; candidates should be punished for poor preparation and eloquence.
            This isn't chair of a local PTA. This is the Presidency of the United States. The campaign should be brutal, but not brutal as we are accustomed to it. Not economically brutal, with SuperPACs and issue groups bombarding the airwaves with attack ad after attack ad. Not logistically brutal, with the campaign lasting almost two years and causing large sections of the population to tune out and other parts to never think about tuning in. But it should be intellectually brutal, politically brutal. Candidates should hold each other to account, they should hammer each other in person about differences over defense spending, education reform, and trade policy, and we should watch them do that. What better way to whittle down a field than by the members of that field relentlessly questioning each other, arguing with each other, finding similarities and differences, and trying to establish a truth, a way forward for their candidacy, their party, and their country? What's that called again? Oh right: a debate.