Campaign Debates Are Democracy Theater

A once-meaningful event has been hollowed out. Here’s how to fix it.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and moderator Kristen Welker participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22.
U.S. President Donald Trump, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and moderator Kristen Welker participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22. Jim Bourg/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The two sheets of plexiglass that stood on the stage at the vice presidential debate were, according to experts, largely useless for preventing the spread of the coronavirus within the hall. They might have played a symbolic role in reminding us that we should participate in anti-coronavirus measures. But in suggesting a protection they did not afford, they were a form of public health theater, analogous to the security theater of taking off our shoes at the airport: a meaningless measure for the purpose of display, not practicality.

Much like those two sad stand-alone oblongs, the debate itself was a transparent, flimsy attempt to pretend that the United States has a thoughtful, policy-based approach to choosing its leaders, a kind of democracy theater which may make Americans feel better about the electoral process, but which does little to inform our choices.

Debates come to us through a historical context that holds them up as a pinnacle of statehood and of functioning democracy. Classical studies have held up the emphasis on rhetoric in ancient Greek democracy as a critical foundation for learned statecraft. The ability to persuade in public discussion was crucial in swaying other members of tiny ancient Greek city-states and carrying policy proposals. Americans’ insistence on public speaking as a key skill set for politicians comes from that long-ago ideal, further enshrined by the classical obsession of their more recent ideological forebears, Enlightenment scholars.

But is public speaking really so important for today’s politics? Yes, there are still speeches, and some of them may sway people. But most legislative decisions, along with most international diplomacy, come down to negotiations and political deal-making, and where persuasive arguments are brought to bear they are provided in the form of policy briefs rather than oral presentation. Some Americans might think of Congress as the site of heroic, Capraesque debates, but a few hours with C-SPAN would disabuse them of that misconception.

Debates, of course, are more than discussions of policy questions: They are part of the campaign process. When Abraham Lincoln contested incumbent Stephen A. Douglas’s U.S. Senate seat for Illinois in 1858, voters didn’t usually have much opportunity to see their candidates speak or interact. (The Lincoln-Douglas debates, with their format of a 60 minute speech by one candidate, a 90 minute speech by the other, and a 30 minute rebuttal by the first  were also far closer to the ancient Greek style of rhetoric than today’s two-minute exchanges between candidates). Voters in the 19th century also had fewer opportunities to learn about the policy positions, particularly in nonwritten form. Today, it’s hard to avoid seeing video images of candidates speaking, and voters can find their platforms in text, video, or audio with a couple of clicks.

Debates now don’t offer much beyond what the rest of the campaign has already given the public, either in terms of observing the candidates or of learning about their policy positions. Even the skill they purportedly test, public speaking, is of marginal importance to today’s leaders—evidenced by the number of incompetent speakers in the ranks of the Capitol and working in the White House. And yet, every cycle debates are built up as a critical element of the campaign and followed closely as though they will offer the climactic reveal scene on which the whole election hangs.

True, debates supposedly offer the opportunity to see candidates thrown off their prepared speeches by a question or delivering a snappy retort. But those circumstances are relatively rare, thanks to all-encompassing debate preparation and short, timed answers. For such a supposedly ad hoc contest, the answers are largely scripted. A snappy retort gets replayed in soundbites for the next week, but that’s hardly a good basis for deciding on a leader; banter is probably even less useful for successful legal wrangling than rhetoric. And at some level voters seem to know that: Even in crowded fields, debate bumps rarely have lasting impacts.

It’s no secret why the United States keeps doing debates despite their relative uselessness: They make for a television event, which makes ratings, which makes money. And the debates do concentrate interest in the electoral process. But as democracy theater, they make voters feel like they’re more engaged than they really are, and that they are basing their judgment of the candidates on something more substantive than what they actually have. Like supposedly nutritious food that is actually a combination of sugar and processed carbs or so-called educational children’s TV that mostly teaches them about toys to want, debates are a sop that feed voters’ complacency and let them skip more worthwhile efforts. As such, they weaken democracy.

What should happen instead?

Move the focus from the people to the policies. Anything voters haven’t learned about candidates through campaign videos, sit-down interviews, impromptu questions at press conferences, town halls, and biographical articles they’re not going to learn during a 90-second answer at a highly controlled event. Policy platforms, on the other hand, are complex, nuanced, and undercovered. Take the time to dig into them. Find ways to make them accessible—and interesting—to people without a background in the specific issue: data visualizations, real-world examples, quizzes. Prerecord segments with people affected by the issue. If it must be the candidates, make them explain why they chose a particular position, or invite on their advisors to argue with each other.

Get out of the media environment. Over and over, we’ve seen well-hyped, experienced journalists completely fail to push the debates beyond soundbites and stump-speech snippets. Those journalists have regular access to the candidates and are the same people asking them questions in formal interviews and press conferences. Make the debates something different. Invite subject-matter experts—academics, activists, workers in industries affected by the policy under discussion. Or bring in “ordinary citizens,” but not for a sop question at the end of the debate: Give them the preparation and the rules that they need to push for the information that they deserve in making choices about their government.

Fact-check properly. Fact-checking today is an inconsistent patchwork of independent websites, half-winking asides in newspaper articles, chyron alerts, and the rare interjection by an interviewer or moderator. Any network or university responsible for holding a debate—or campaign event of any kind—should commit to a consistent approach to fact-checking. Who will be doing it? What sources are they using? What will they do about claims rather than facts? How will the fact check be communicated?

The debates as they stand now are billed as exciting events, but they have little impact either on the campaign or on our preparedness for voting. It’s time to move from democracy theater to focusing on an informed, participatory, and engaged democracy.

Malka Older is an affiliated research fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Sciences Po. She is the author of an acclaimed trilogy of science fiction political thrillers, beginning with Infomocracy, and a new collection of of short fiction and poetry, ...and Other Disasters.