How to Enliven the Presidential Debates

Make them less like joint press conferences, more like tent meetings…

In his splendid book Creating a Democratic Public, the historian Kevin Mattson shares the tale of Tom Johnson, the mayor of Cleveland from 1901 to 1909. It’s hard to find a better exemplar of Progressive-era municipal reform than Mayor Johnson — he fought streetcar barons, created public parks, municipalized his city’s electricity, and established one of America’s first building codes. The famous muckraker Lincoln Steffens called Johnson “the best Mayor of the best-governed city in the United States.”

But what was most fascinating about Johnson was his model of engaging with the public. His signature practice, Mattson recounts, was the tent meeting. Anytime the mayor wanted to launch an initiative, he would head to a Cleveland neighborhood, pitch a tent, and invite people in. Here’s how Johnson himself explained it:

In a tent, there is a freedom from restraint that is seldom present in halls. The audience seems to feel that it has been invited there for the purpose of finding out the position of various speakers. There is a greater freedom in asking questions too, and this heckling is the most valuable form of political education. Tent meetings can be held in all parts of the city—in short the meetings are literally taken to the people.

In order to make the meetings lively, Johnson encouraged audience heckling, insisted on raucous question-and-answer sessions after each speech, and often gave his political opponents equal time to talk. (Remember: This is all at his own meeting!) Because he had faith in the public’s ability to make its own decisions, Mattson explains, Johnson “did not fear open discussions and never turned down a debate.” (He once even gave a platform to the radical anarchist Emma Goldman — a figure who most mayors at the time would’ve rather had arrested than given a mic.)

Johnson viewed his method of public engagement as a strategic necessity. “The greatest obstacle to overcome in any fight in which moral issues are involved,” Johnson explained, “is not opposition, but the indifference of the public.” Put another way, a lively public is a prerequisite for any serious reform effort. 

What’s most amazing about Johnson’s tent meetings, though, was that they worked! As Mattson explains:

From all reports, these meetings… never degenerated into entertainment but maintained a serious level of discussion. They drew large numbers of working-class people, Johnson’s major supporters, and though the meetings were orderly they were also lively—full of heckling, arguments, and searing questions. Thomas Campbell argues, “The frontier-like egalitarianism of the atmosphere encouraged unlettered citizens to participate in the give-and-take of these meetings.” Johnson introduced Cleveland’s citizens to the pleasures of democratic public life—to its liveliness, its give-and-take processes, and its open nature. In doing so he showed how a democratic public was not only politically necessary but also a source of leading a good life since it could be exciting and encouraged commitment and concern for a common good that went beyond one’s individual self.

When reading this inspiring history, one can’t help but be disappointed by the contrast between Tom Johnson’s tent meetings and today’s antiseptic, deadening forms of popular engagement with politicians. The top-down campaign rally, the glossy mail piece, the cable news hit, the staged photo-op — they all are dispiritingly anti-democratic in their own way. But perhaps the most disappointing form of all — the form that would disturb Tom Johnson the most if he were alive today — is the current form of the Presidential debate. 

Today’s presidential debate format is staid, unengaging, and uninformative. It rewards shallow talking points and theatrical moments over sincere reflection and exploration of contrasting visions for the future of our country. It trades real audience engagement for “audience engagement”—pre-vetted questions that the hosts would have asked anyway. It resembles a series of simultaneous press conferences much more than it does a vigorous debate. Put bluntly, today’s presidential debates are formatted to be the anti-tent meeting.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As we begin the 2020 election’s debate season, the Democratic Party has a chance to innovate on the format so as to better draw out honest contrasts between candidates, better raise up authentic citizen concerns, better demonstrate progressive values to a new generation, better educate the public on the significant crises of our time, and—most importantly—better inspire citizens to become engaged in public life.

In that spirit, here are three ways we can reformat our debates to be less like joint press conferences and more like Tom Johnson’s tent meetings. 

  1. First, we should replace political television figures with more compelling hosts. 

Apologies for sounding harsh, but political television stars are, for the most part, the least-equipped people to host presidential debates. With a few noble exceptions, they have been one of the least compelling, least creative, least informed, and least in touch groups in America. It’s time to give other groups from across the country a turn at the helm of presidential debates.

Here are some potential alternative host structures:

  • A debate hosted by grassroots members of various populations and interest groups: Have a debate hosted just by social workers or just by nurses or just by teachers. Or perhaps have a debate hosted just by people who are experiencing homelessness, people who are incarcerated, refugees, startup founders, union stewards, mayors, or restaurant workers.
  • A debate hosted by famous people from various disciplines: Have a debate co-hosted by Gloria Steinem, LeBron James, science fiction author NK Jemisin, and Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness. Or have a debate hosted by, say, sports journalist Bill Simmons, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Ralph Nader, and The Toast co-founder Nicole Cliffe.
  • A debate hosted by investigative journalists and policy advocates: Instead of having television figures host the debate, have deep experts in policy areas run the debate, asking questions and follow ups about their respective areas of expertise. Imagine: Lina Khan asks about antitrust, Jesse Eisinger asks about corporate prosecution, Bryan Stevenson asks about criminal justice reform, Rhianna Gunn-Wright asks about the Green New Deal, Jane Mayer asks about money in politics, and Jeremy Scahill asks about war powers.
  • A debate hosted by random ordinary Democrats: Have a debate where 15 random—truly random—Democrats from across the country get selected and flown to the debate to ask whatever they want for the whole debate. It has been my experience that (and, again, with a few notable exceptions) random citizens are much more curious, engaging, and tapped into what people care about than the average cable news anchor.
  1. Second, we should design Presidential debates to encourage much more compelling inter-candidate engagement.

The most compelling and informative moments in Presidential debates are when back-and-forths between candidates draw out important contrasts. We need to structure the debates to maximize these informative back-and-forths and minimize the boringest moments —when the debate lapses into simultaneous, unrevealing press conferences.

Here are two potential ways to do this:

  • Let every qualified candidate host a debate for the other candidates: During their personal debate, the host candidate can ask the other candidates questions about issues that are important to them. They can spotlight their own priorities while letting the other candidates have a chance to address those priorities. The more debates, the better—and who wouldn’t want to see “The Elizabeth Warren Debate” or “The Bernie Sanders Debate” — or “The Marianne Williamson Debate” or “The Andrew Yang Debate”?
  • Put each candidate in the hot seat: Invert the previous format by having each candidate be the subject of a “hot seat” debate where they are in the hot seat and all the other candidates spend the whole debate interrogating them about their beliefs and positions. As an added bonus, perhaps each “hot seat” debate is kicked off with the chosen candidate giving a 15-minute presentation (PowerPoint optional) about their basic case for why they should be president.
  • Have rotating three-person scrums: Split the debate into three-person scrums in which candidates can have more intimate back-and-forths about various issues. 
  1. Third, we should move beyond rewarding memorized talking points. 

The presidency is about more than having memorized talking points about each discrete issue of the day. We need to draw out other aspects of each candidate’s character, strategy and vision.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • The values, principles & methods of thought debate: Instead of asking candidates to spout off policy facts issue-by-issue, have a debate where candidates are asked about how they approach unexpected situations, how they balance various values and priorities, and how they think through things. Ask them what books inspired them, who their heroes are and who they see as their adversary. Ask them what their biggest regret is and what they see as their greatest accomplishment. Ask them what they look for in a cabinet member or a chief of staff. Such softball questions often reveal much more than apparently “hardball” policy questions (which can be easily gamed by memorizing talking points).
  • The policy staff debate: Have a debate where each candidate is allowed to bring three policy staffers with them. Candidates get all their answers from policy staffers anyway—and policy staffers determine their agenda if elected—so why not be transparent about this reality?
  • The historic moments debate: Present a series of recent presidential moments and ask candidates how they would have responded to them differently. How would Pete Buttigieg have responded after 9/11 — would he have invaded Afghanistan? What would Joe Biden have done differently after Hurricane Katrina? Would Amy Klobuchar have bailed out the banks after the financial crisis? Would Cory Booker have pushed for a public option during the 2009 healthcare debates, or did he think what President Obama did was prudent?

These are just a few suggestions — I’m sure you can think up some more. We can debate the advantages and disadvantages of each particular proposal, but what all of the above share is that they add a bit more life to the format. And life—give-and-take, back-and-forth, liveliness!—is what the Democratic Party—and American politics as a whole—most desperately and urgently needs. Remember the mayor’s warning: Our greatest obstacle is not opposition, but indifference.

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