We are told this is a time of crisis. We are told we are on the cusp of an unknown but terrible period. We are told democracy is in peril like never before and the stakes are higher than at any time in history. Unless, you count the 1932 and 1936 elections, the 1968 and 1972 elections, and every other election in which Democrats trotted out their democracy doomsday as campaign strategy handbook. This strategy is a little transitory in nature and more central in their message some years than others depending on polling data in a particular election year.
In any event, Senator Raphael Warnock feels the widespread sense of panic about democracy and has adopted it as a central theme of his reelection effort It would be nice to have a deep discussion about American democracy at some point, but if it is indeed in danger, and Democrats genuinely care about and want to protect and advance democracy, then why do they continue to defend and eagerly engage in what is obviously harmful to democracy, while labeling as enemies of democracy those who don’t?
Take, for example, the issue of candidate debates. The Republican National Committee recently withdrew from the panel on presidential debates, and Warnock’s Republican opponent, Hershel Walker, has not committed to the debates that Warnock gleefully committed to. As a result, the RNC and Walker are branded as traitors to democracy. But has anyone stopped to think about candidate debates and how they effect democracy?
Why do we continue to have these things?
No matter what office is sought, from president to dog catcher, the political debate has become a staple of every campaign and election. The brief answer and rebuttal format is well known if little understood, as is the familiar ceremonial staging. This formal setup is replicated across the county, even for small local elections. The debates, which were supposed to provide voters with a contrasted view of the candidates and their positions, fail in their core duty. This is one of the few instances where there is widespread consensus across political lines right now.
Instead of true debate, voters are given either a series of prepackaged and formulaic answers that ramble enough to fill the 1-2 minute time and, when feasible, give some voters emotional flight on their favorite subject, or the elusive moment when one candidate strikes political gold when, in a flash of mental agility, they hurl out a zinger or some begging to go viral statement. Attempts to achieve those moments are now the goal of many candidates. A plethora of research on the subject gives scholastic validity to what any voter who has seen one of these performances already understands. They’re awful and should be stopped. In the recent primary elections, I wrote about how this was damaging state-level politics.
If the goal of candidate debates is to educate voters, the current format should be abandoned. If the goal of debates is for candidates to act in increasingly vulgar, dismissive, and divisive ways in order to generate the greatest number of moments for use in viral out-of-context clips and negative campaign advertising that misleads voters, then we should applaud ourselves for the current debate format and devise ways to attack and disparage anyone who refuses to participate in the charade.
Abandon The Debates
What, if anything, should replace the debates if they are to be abandoned? The goal of the candidate debate was and is still a good one. So, how then, are we to provide a way for voters to hear from the candidates so that voters are given the benefit of contrasting and comparing them?
Some have advocated a debate structure similar to the current debates but with more time allotted for responses and rebuttals, as in academic debates. More in-depth responses would be an improvement, but reform can not get to the heart of the problem. The confrontational approach fostered by the structure of the debates is largely why the debates are like they are in the first place.
Furthermore, if you think of the debates as a way of evaluating applicants for a job, then electing the winner of a debate is a really weird and poor hiring practice. The person elected will be engaged in activities that demand the polar opposite abilities and attributes required for a great debate performance. If you own a business, how much sense would it make to require applicants to demonstrate mastery of skills diametrically opposed to those actually required for the job?
If Not Debates, Then What?
In 2015, I spent almost three hours watching or listening to Bernie Sanders discuss a broad range of issues and explain his many views. I wasn’t alone; millions of conservatives did the same. Were we high? Why would conservatives watch or listen to Bernie Sanders for even an hour, let alone three? This was not a debate, nor a speech, nor a newscast, nor anything else that had been rehearsed or edited. This was the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast.
Millions of liberals, like conservatives who watched Sanders, spent hours watching and listening to conservative Ben Shapiro. Rogan and most of his audience disagreed with many of Shapiro’s views just as strongly as I did with Bernie Sanders’. Despite disagreement, the engaging structure encourages areas of agreement and tolerance. Rogan doesn’t ask softball questions, but he also doesn’t go for gotcha Mike Wallace moments. There is, in reality, no question list. It is a discussion, not an inquisition. A one-on-one relaxed casual conversation that starts with mutual respect.
It has been a long time since a conventional debate resulted in viewers gaining respect for candidates on the other side of the political spectrum. If a podcast hosted by a comedian who moonlights as an MMA commentator is achieving that and encouraging shared common ground on a regular basis, whereas conventional debates often lead to the opposite outcomes, it is time to scrap the debates.
Something Better For Everyone
I’m not suggesting we bring Joe Rogan in to host a program where he interviews politicians. I am suggesting inspiration might be taken from his show given that it is the most popular podcast in the world and has audience sizes each week dwarfing all but the most popular sports programming and all news content.
What would happen if two rival candidates sat down across from each other in a room with no one else present, just stationary cameras and talked for three hours? Is it possible that candidates may be more genuine? What if the first thing they discussed was their common goal of a better town, state, and country then prove the point by disagreeing for three hours without disparagement?
The result would be immensely preferable to the debates we have now. It would doubtlessly be more educational and far more fun. There would be real discussion, and that would be a refreshing experience for all. The purpose of this encounter is not for them to try to convince each other of anything. Disagreeing is the point. The candidates would have to show that they can respectfully talk about issues, listen well, and defend their positions with someone who doesn’t agree with them—which happens to be a handy, if old fashioned, skill for governing. Voters would see clear division on issues and areas of common ground rather than full intractable divide. Imagine if they had to do this once a month leading up to election day.
As far as democracy is concerned, which is better? On this, no argument is necessary. The debates that democrats cherish as essential democratic traditions and that Raphael Warnock urges will undoubtedly contribute to everything that is actually endangering American democracy, while providing little to no value to voters or the political process.
I hope all Republicans decide to skip the debates. Candidates may become a bit more knowledgeable and a little less theatrical if we replace debates with something useful for voters.
***If Marjorie Taylor Greene and Marcus Flowers agreed to do this instead of a debate in the GA-14 race, it should be a PPV event and the sales will eclipse the last Mike Tyson fight.