They should be replaced with deeply probing interviews by serious journalists and experts
Now that US Presidential debate season is over, I have a new sense of clarity about the serious problems with the concept and format. Pretty much everyone was appalled by the first Presidential debate, which was a transparent fiasco because of the constant interruptions. The common consensus is that Trump was aggressively hostile to even the most basic norms of a discussion, although neither candidate came out looking very good.
But personally, I’m even more concerned by the other ones: by the Vice Presidential debate in which both Harris and Pence came across as perfectly competent politicians, and last night’s debate where decorum was enforced through the power of muting. While these debates were a lot easier to watch, I think that the reality of what is happening in these exercises is really best captured by the shambolic first debate.
Even at their most decorous, they are a sort of primitive sparring match thinly disguised as a discourse oriented toward learning the truth.
We are left with a process of fact-checking that sits almost entirely outside of the spectacle itself. Fact-checkers can demonstrate that Trump was lying or misleading constantly, while Biden also said some contestable, false, or misleading things. (A good example is Biden’s claims that the trade deficit has grown worse with China; the truth is that economists debate this.) The muting of microphones allowed this to look a bit more normal, sane and reasonable, but it was nothing of the sort.
Inevitably, what Trump has demonstrated so effectively is how vacuous this format is. The basic problem is that one can seem to “win a debate” very simply, at least with those already inclined toward a given leader, simply by confidently attacking. In terms of the primary audience and experience of the debate, it is almost entirely irrelevant if these attacks have substance or are entirely composed of vapor. As a result, debates are a natural vector of deception and bad faith pseudo-engagement. Making them look more sane just makes them a more effective deception vector.
There is a goal that a debate gestures toward, which I think is in fact vital to the functioning of an open and decent society. That goal is the earnest, deep and discursive pursuit of truth.
That end can be met effectively, but not through this format. The problem is that the format of a debate just helps partisans mobilize antagonism for the purpose of deception.
We should have candidates undergo deep and probing interviews by a panel of journalists and respected experts in particular areas. All candidates should face the same panel, and it should represent a diversity of perspectives and expertise. This would represent a move toward a discursive practice worthy of a decent truth-seeking society, and an end to the absurd professional wrestling matches that we indulge instead.