Why leadership debates suck, and how we can fix them

Photo by Solal Ohayon on Unsplash

Note: I wrote this article soon after the October 8th, 2019 Canadian leadership debate. I am posting it here in the hopes that you find it a worthwhile read in the lead up to the US 2020 leadership debates (an event with a ridiculously wide viewership).

Five candidates on a stage, one of whom will eventually lead the country. In just under two hours of fast-paced verbal conflict, the nation learns more about its choices in the upcoming election. Candidates debate policy, launch carefully-crafted attacks on their opponents. It is a clash of ideas, aided by a diplomatic moderator, forging voters’ perspectives like a hammer on molten iron.

Who am I kidding?

What we witnessed on October 8th at the Canadian Federal Leader’s Debate is the same hollow rhetoric we must endure throughout the election season. Voters in democracies all over the world constantly complain about the organization of leadership debates, yet little is done to change the traditional format.

The crowd is made up of mostly-undecided voters. Candidates are asked questions and given set time periods to provide an answer (or lack of) to the query. Engagement between candidates is almost never constructive: it is a question of who can shout their talking points the loudest. At the end of it all, there are some warm words spoken about bipartisanship, cooperation, and the democratic values that have been preserved.

Many viewers are left dumbfounded as to how certain candidates could possibly be so terrible at debating, given that it is a significant aspect of their chosen vocation.

Anyone could see that she didn’t even answer the question!” “Everyone knows that constantly interrupting people makes you unlikeable!”

This perceived bad technique is often not what it seems. This is because victory in a leadership debate is not necessarily achieved by persuading the undecided voters in the audience. It is about convincing those who it is possible to convince and strengthening existing support. This explains the behaviour of right-wing PPC leader Maxime Bernier, who, when questioned about his tweets critical of multiculturalism, doubled down on his previous statements instead of downplaying them. Bernier knew that the people he would appease by apologizing (or avoiding the topic of immigration entirely) were the same group who would never consider voting for him in the first place.

In this sense, the concept of a homogenous group of undecided voters is a myth; while there are certainly those who haven’t yet chosen who they are going to vote for, everyone has a political paradigm they will adhere to. Undecided voters stuck between the Conservatives and the People’s Party are completely separate from those deciding between the Greens and the NDP.

Candidates thus don’t have much of an incentive to critically engage with each other, especially with parties politically distant from themselves.

Moderators need to be asking these probing questions and forcing candidates to clarify their platforms. This will not always result in every candidate having equal speaking time in every exchange, but will rather require moderators to discern where the relevant clashes between parties are and force them to take place.

While candidates will always have a script and try their best to stick to it, a moderator’s job should be to force them off their prepared remarks by throwing curveballs. Candidates should get a chance early on to reiterate their main talking points, but should later be asked to comment on issues prioritized by opponents.

The current emphasis on Q&A is ridiculous. There is no good reason for the entire debate to revolve around long-winded questions as candidates constantly stray into unrelated issues and occasionally reign themselves back to the topic at hand. A debate is essentially a conversation which should flow in harmony with the ideas being put forward instead of in a predetermined order (or, in the case of this past Leader’s Debate, random draw).

Take a topic: climate change, for instance. Ask candidates to state their positions on the issue. Then ask straight-forward, probing questions to discern each candidate’s proposed policies and other basic questions, like how they plan to pay for their initiatives. After each candidate has said their piece and been examined on it, start comparing each candidate’s platform. Once again, straight-forward questions are key. Complexity brings with it the potential for candidates to avoid discussing the key issues.

“Do you believe that climate change exists? (Yes or no?)” “What are you going to do to protect the environment?” “What are you doing that candidate X isn’t?” “Explain why your platform is superior to that of candidate Y.”

One minute to fully answer each simple question gives participants an opportunity to engage with one another’s material in a constructive way, highlighting areas of agreement and disagreement between candidates which ultimately form the clashes which we as a country vote on.

The moderator intervenes whenever candidates stray from the topic at hand. This possibility acts more as deterrence than anything else; politicians are skilled orators who will only try to pull off misdirections they think they will get away with.

In a sense, the moderator is acting with extreme bias. It is a bias against every one of the candidates. It may seem that this is a strange position to take, until you consider that this is literally the position of the majority of Canadians. People generally dislike all of the potential candidates, voting for a ‘least worst’ option or strategically keeping a particularly bad politician from power by voting for the opposing frontrunner. Even supporters of a particular party often dislike multiple aspects of its platform, arguing nonetheless that their preferred candidate is better than the alternatives.

By making our politicians contend with a moderator who shares the skepticism of the average Canadian, they will need to speak clearly and with purpose

A debate led by a moderator who shares the rest of the country’s lack of faith in our politicians may be just what is needed to restore that faith.

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