The Democratic Debates—We Need a New Format

The Spirited Reasoner watched both nights of the Democratic Debates this past week. One unfortunate takeaway message is that our nation desperately needs to move away from the food fight approach, and back toward a structured form of rhetoric, like the one used by great leaders in the past, like Lincoln and Douglas. It’s crazy to think that we can learn much about ten different people over the course of two hours based upon a system of media personalities tossing random questions at subjectively selected pet candidates, then allowing only a chosen few to respond. Unless, that is, someone shouts loudly enough to demand a chance to speak, in which case the questioner might just allow the shouter to argue some more.

Or not, depending on the media host’s mood.

I don’t blame the candidates. They were not given much choice by the media regarding the format. Nor do I blame the talking heads, who are only playing the role that has been thrust upon them by network executives. I blame We the People, the viewing audience, for not caring enough to demand a more structured form of debate.

How else might it work?

Suppose, for a second, that all of us in the viewing audience had been told, perhaps a week in advance, that tonight’s debate would begin by covering exactly five major issues.  For purposes of this hypothetical, let’s say the issues were (1) immigration, (2) race relations, (3) impeachment (or not), (4) environmental concerns, and (5) foreign policy (perhaps Iran, North Korea, China, and/or Russia). (I know, I know. There are lots of additional issues. And we need to provide for some give and take. I’ll get to that.) All of us would know the text of the five questions in advance, so that we would be listening carefully to how each candidate responded, especially to those issues most important to us.

At the debate, the first question would be read, and the candidates would offer their (prepared) responses, each to last exactly one minute, with the candidate’s microphone designed to go silent at the one-minute mark. (Note the absolute fairness here, because the candidates will know the question in advance and will have ample time to practice, the wisest will know to limit their remarks to around 55 seconds to allow for a margin of error.) The order of candidate responses would not be determined alphabetically, or by any sort of polling numbers, but would rather be based upon a random drawing of names (perhaps by computer) just prior to the start of the debate. Separate random drawings would be necessary for each of the five questions to minimize unfairness.

In this hypothetical format, the total time for responses to the first question would require a bit more than ten minutes. I say “more” because there would need to be time allowed for the moderator to start and stop each candidate. Let’s say twelve minutes would be required. That would mean all five questions could be answered by all ten candidates in approximately one hour. But of course, we should then add another ten or fifteen minutes for commercials. So we’ve used maybe 75 minutes so far.

Now we have around 45 minutes remaining for our two-hour debate. This section is when candidates, again at random, could be given another minute each to speak about any issue of their choosing. Some might wish to respond to earlier remarks of other candidates. Some might wish to bring up new issues. Some might wish to expand further upon their original remarks. We would then repeat this process to allow for counterargument and/or the exploration of additional issues. This process wouldn’t require the entire 45 minutes. Instead, it would only require around 25 minutes (because two minutes times ten candidates equals twenty minutes, but let’s add five minutes for moderation and commercials.)

We now have approximately 20 minutes remaining for closing statements.

Some might argue that this format would eliminate some of the “rough and tumble” give-and-take that can happen between candidates during the type of food-fight format we witnessed this past week. I would argue that the same give-and-take would occur in the Spirited Reasoner’s format, but it would occur more fairly, and in a manner designed to encourage equal participation by all candidates.