Why Candidate Debates Need to Change

(Photo: Deseret News)

By Sam Lewis – Contributor

Last week was the first presidential debate in the United States, an event which has been a major part of the election campaign since 1960. In the past, these debates have led to some of the most memorable moments in American politics, from the first show off between Nixon and Kennedy, to Ford’s famously bad showing in 1976, to ever quotable lines such as “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy”. However, this particular debate was more memorable than most, not only because of the either sides ability to deal with tough questioning or in their articulation of their policies but because of the almost childish displays from the two candidates.

When I went on to social media afterwards, there seemed to be two moments that were being specifically discussed. Firstly, President Donald Trump’s offensive response to the moderator Chris Wallace and secondly the instance where former Vice President Joe Biden made his now notorious comment of ‘will you shut up man’.  However, the moment that stuck out most to me was when Wallace told President Trump to stop interrupting Mr Biden and that ‘you will have your two minutes, you can say whatever you want in those two minutes’. This shows, at least to me, that the quality of this debate had degraded to such an extend that it was not required for the candidate to even answer the question. This is not a singular incident but more the inevitable conclusion of a rapid decline in debate quality. During all forms of debate, moderators have been unwilling to follow up on debaters even when they refuse to answer the question that has been presented. Although there is some merit in giving more opportunity for candidates to respond to each other, rather than it becoming simply an interview, it can also lead to questions on key issues not being answered; with candidates being able to control the topics of discussion, meaning voters are not supplied with the answers that they want.  

The UK has been just as guilty of declining standards. During last year’s general election, the candidates chose to rely more on soundbites than arguments, with the robotic repetition of ‘when we get Brexit done’ and ‘for the many not the few’. In fact, in some ways it can almost be seen as worse than the US, as neither Theresa May nor David Cameron even chose to show up to the respective 2018 and 2015 debates. On the other hand, it is important to note that the different electoral systems mean that whilst in the U.S, voters directly elect the President, in the UK they vote for their specific Members of Parliament. For this reason, the first leadership debate was only first held in 2010, but to many this is still not an excuse for the Prime Minister to be able to campaign all around the country and not defend their record in a public forum.

Furthermore, it is at the MP level that the errors in British debates are most apparent. To use a personal anecdote, for the last few elections my previous school attempted to organise a husting for our local parliamentary candidates, but due to multiple candidates refusing to attend, they never took place. The reason I bring this up is because even though we elect MPs and not Prime Ministers, a Hansard study conducted in 2013 found that 22% of people don’t know who their MP is. Although it is fair to say that a hustings is not going to generate a high viewership, people should have every opportunity possible to get to know and most importantly understand their candidates – for they are people who could hypothetically represent their needs for the next five years.

Of course, some would ask why we even need debates. With the internet we get more information than ever before, meaning people do not need a one-off TV appearance to learn about their candidates. To that, I would argue that debates are the best opportunities for voters to see and listen to candidates. Although we may now get more information, the vast majority of opinion pieces, articles and soundbites come from such events. By watching a debate, you are not watching something which has been spun to one side or another but a politician having to defend themselves to win your vote, which in this society is almost a rarity. Furthermore, one cannot understate the importance of the TV format. In the first presidential debate, radio listeners claimed that Richard Nixon won whilst television voters claimed that Kennedy did. Although this can be seen as a failure of the format, I choose to see it as a positive. People got an opportunity to see Kennedy and his calmness and mannerisms seemed presidential. When a large amount of major office revolves around PR, this almost act as a test run for the candidates to see how they act in high pressure scenarios before they are shoved into a scenario of crisis management.

It is therefore important not to kill the TV format but simply reform it, but in what way? For the answer, I believe we must look no further than the TV show ‘Newsroom’. For example, in the episode ‘The Blackout, Part 2: Mock Debate’, the show presents a very simple reform to the debate structure, one which I have hinted to previously, which gives more power to the moderators. In the show, the moderator is allowed to interrupt the candidate at any time and give follow up questions. Although the impact of the change is dramatized for the sake of television, it is still clear that this simple change could mean that lies are called out and candidates actually have to answer the questions put forward to them, which are two major flaws with the current system. Ideally, as well as this, the moderator would not be attached to the news company hosting it. Such a claim is more relevant to the private networks of the US and although I understand it may be unrealistic, it would help to reduce the political bias of the way the debates are formed, although it could be suggested right wing broadcasts are more likely to ask about right wing issues and visa-versa. An independent moderator, although having their own political bias, would help to curb this issue at least to some extent.

At the moment, political debates are an opportunity being squandered. After the debacle of the first U.S presidential debate, many pointed out the contrast between the much more civil and substantive debates for the upcoming New Zealand elections, which are perhaps standards to be aspired to. Last week should not be looked at as a gag but should be viewed sombrely, as it was not just the candidates being hurt but the voters, losing their opportunity to make the most informed decision they can. But that does not mean it is not redeemable. Change is needed but I believe it is definitely achievable, and hopefully soon candidates will be put under pressure and actually challenged, rather than a continuation of the current circus.

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