By Parker Kang
Every election season, there is a long-established tradition most look forward to: political debates. Like a competitive sport, most are eager to root for their side. How could one not find them exciting? However, these debates have garnered criticism in recent years. As a politically engaged teenager, I personally contend that the debates as they currently exist are counterproductive to their intended purpose.
Let’s use the recent Democratic Debate in Charleston, South Carolina as an example. How is the event formatted? A media body, in this case CBS, is commissioned to host a debate for the candidates of the respective party. This already presents a large problem. Though it can be easily forgotten, media companies are businesses. As a result, they do not approach political discussion as a neutral party. Instead, they are structured to promote economic policy favoring their own business interests. Typically this bias is established during the employment process, wherein only those who refuse to challenge corporate power are hired. As a result, candidates who challenge the existing economic system are treated with scorn and disregard. Manufacturing Consent, written by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman gives an in-depth explanation as to how this “filter” works. In a recent Democratic Debate, the CBS moderators deliberately targeted Bernie Sanders with confrontational questions regarding the cost of his plans. Though each candidate should be forced to explain his or her positions, the moderate candidates are never badgered to the same extent over the cost of their own plans. For example, Sanders is often the only one to explain that his healthcare plan eliminates cost inflating copayments and deductibles. Ideally, moderators should act as neutral parties, rather than treating a debate as an interrogation for certain candidates.
The next contention I have is with the presence of an audience during the debate process. Whether or not a line produces cheers or boos does not validate or invalidate an argument. While there are not positives to this tradition, there certainly are negatives. Primarily, oftentimes the tickets to attend political debates are overpriced, in the thousands. This price will inevitably produce an audience sympathetic to the interests of the wealthy, while severely underrepresenting the working class. The tickets to the most recent CBS debate cost between $2,000 to $3,200 according to The New York Times, Vox, and Fox Business. This was a clear case of a debate audience representing the party elite. Most importantly, what does any crowd, even an impartial one, add to our depth of understanding? Like us, a crowd should be there to learn rather than cheer.
Based on other students’ opinions, I am not alone in my reservations about the current structure of political debates. One student shared that he hates “when politicians go over time and they aren’t even saying anything.” Another said that “while [he] understands that we need a way to get to know the people running, there should be a better way to do it.” This student posed a reasonable assessment–how can we learn the differences and similarities among people running for office without debates? I believe we are capable of developing a fundamentally informative and fair process that achieves better results.
Imagine a two to three hour conversation formatted similarly to a podcast. Rather than including every candidate in a policy brawl, two candidates would be given the opportunity to engage in calm discussion without the presence of an audience. Viewers would be able to differentiate individual policies and could come to understand the upsides and downsides of each. To solve the issue of private control over debates, the reformed process would ideally be publicly funded, managed, and moderated. Perhaps this vision is unrealistic, but oftentimes bold proposals are required to serve as a catalyst for change.