Our quest for 'good TV' has turned debates into cage-matches

Our quest for 'good TV' has turned debates into cage-matches
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In the hours after a candidate debate, journalists and academics rush to give their hot takes and offer sober analyses. Skim Twitter and Facebook, and you’ll discover that everyone is a pundit. Decades of horse-race coverage of campaigns have schooled us in how to declare winners and losers with an air of authority. Reality TV shows also have taught us how to identify stereotypical competitors — the smart one, the cute one, the schemer, and the one with a heart of gold. 

None of this really helps the candidates. They adopt media-generated frames, quarrel and bicker with each other to get more time on camera. Onstage, they prosper when they play true to type and create a dramatic moment when they attack an opponent. 

No debate teaches the public about the country’s problems or how to move toward solving them. Free-for-all debates in which candidates must alternately criticize and “say something nice about” their opponents do not let us understand how people in government might improve our nation rather than making it worse. A “deliberative debate” might be a better option.

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This idea draws from the practice of deliberative polling, promoted by political scientist James Fishkin and the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University. Conventional polls, like conventional debates, let people repeat pat answers and well-rehearsed sound bites. They do not reveal genuine preferences that people have, once given a chance to reason through a problem. Deliberative polls, by contrast, help us reach conclusions on important issues, when we have been given basic information and a chance to talk openly about them.

Imagine how a deliberative debate might work for the current crop of presidential candidates in the Democratic Party. Take three to five candidates, seat them around a table with a mix of journalists, academics, policy experts and ordinary people for an extended discussion of, say, four issues — one domestic, one foreign, one economic, one cultural — the kinds of issues that presidents and other officials address all the time. Anyone at the table could ask questions — not to put others on the spot, necessarily, but to understand the country’s problems and clarify possible solutions to them. Tuning in, voters would witness a conversation, not a cage-match.

From that kind of conversation, people could learn not only what candidates want to do, but why they want to do it. No longer would we hear abstract mentions of 10-point plans — each attached to meaningless dollar figures and presented without context. After all, if candidates could not clearly explain and defend their ideas to their cohorts at the table, then they should not be trusted with presenting them to the public as the party’s standard-bearer.

Watching a deliberative debate, people would learn much about a candidate’s sense of history, degree of empathy for various life situations and understanding of world affairs. No more opening statements containing a brief résumé and a statement of how much candidates love their states, families and pets — in that order. No more closing statements that simply tell voters to visit a website or send a text. Instead, this kind of thoughtful debate would give candidates the opportunity to show off their reasoning skills and share their vision for the country.

Imagine, too, how deliberative conversations with presidential candidates would improve the general election campaign. Take a small panel of journalists, academics, policy experts and ordinary people sitting together with a single candidate. Present a domestic or foreign policy scenario to the candidate, assume they were the president, and ask them to work their way through to a decision. In such a context, we could hear what kinds of questions they would ask, learn what values and experiences they would bring to the job, and see how they would act while “presidenting” in the Oval Office.

Deliberative debates would simply be more informative and useful debates. Yet they would more likely be suited to PBS audiences than to those of Fox, MSNBC or CNN. Deliberative debates would be universally regarded as “bad TV.” If there’s anything the past few years have taught us, though, it’s that good TV makes for a bad polity.

Leonard Williams is a professor of political science and dean of the College of Education and Social Sciences at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind.