“The great secret of succeeding in conversation is to admire little, to hear much; always to distrust our own reason, and sometimes that of our friends; never to pretend to wit, but to make that of others appear as much as possibly we can; to hearken to what is said and to answer to the purpose.” — Benjamin Franklin
There is something deeply wrong with our Presidential debates. Perhaps it is simply because of our entrenched political environment. Instead of ‘answering to the purpose’, as Benjamin Franklin put it, candidates are intent on destroying their opponents. Both candidates approach the debate as they would an athletic competition. The assumption is that the debate is something to be won. But, as we saw with the most recent Presidential debate, when candidates seek to destroy their opponents, the country loses.
Instead, we should design the debates such that they create opportunities for the country to come together. A Presidential debate could be a place where complex topics are unpacked in an instructive way that brings far more than 50% of the country to a singular conclusion. There obviously won’t be perfect outcomes on every issue, but every four years there is an opportunity for the leaders of our two political parties to create a didactic moment that drives humanity forward.
There are structural things we could do to change the debates to make them more civil like turning off the microphones when someone isn’t supposed to be speaking, so that the other candidate isn’t interrupted. We could experiment with the length of responses and rebuttals. We could require the candidates to answer questions in a direct way without pivoting. However, none of that really creates an ideal debate.
An ideal debate is one where wisdom is revealed and consensus is built among the American people. Right now, the Presidential debates are appealing to our primal instincts — battling to destroy each other — win at any cost.
The Commission on Presidential Debates should of course pursue debate models that promote civility, but a civil debate should not be our end game. The Commission should seek with reckless abandon the hopeful possibility of an enlightened civil debate where the best forms of arguments are presented and solutions are revealed to the American public.
These debates have the opportunity to not only move conversations forward, but model what enlightened civil discussion looks like, and they’ll do it every four years in the Fall right before Thanksgiving when we sit around the table with our families and break bread together.