The Democratic “Town Hall”


First question, is this even a debate? I’m going to say no.

Jeffrey Auer writing in 1962 outlined 5 basic characteristics of “debate:”

A debate is ( 1) a confrontation, (2) in equal and adequate
time, ( 3) of matched contestants, ( 4) on a stated proposition,
(5) to gain an audience decision. Each of these elements is essential if
we are to have true debate.

The “town hall” format, employed by the Democrats here fails right out of the gate. It’s not a confrontation.

Town hall?

The “town hall” format itself does not necessitate this parallel-Q&A-session format.

The first (and most infamous) town hall debate in 1992 is a marked contrast to the ships-passing-in-the-night style of tonight’s “contest.”

Why does my gripe with the lack of confrontation matter?

Because, this format is proof that “debates” are nothing more than “Joint Press Conferences.” This trend is dangerous because it leaves out the role of genuine exchange in the democratic process. Debate is a contest of ideas and that’s a good thing. The best ideas should prevail in this contest (more often than not) and through this process we can make informed decisions about the best course for the country.

Legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, for one, believed that controversy was essential to television journalism:

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is — an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate. 
(1958, quoted in Smith “Presidential Campaign Communication”)

Tonight’s “debate,” however, lacked controversy. For instance, Bernie Sanders, when asked a question from a Clinton supporter about his support for Planned Parenthood, responded by citing his legislative record on Pro-choice issues. But notably, he concluded his response with the statement “Ask Senator Clinton…” But we can’t! Because she’s literally not on the stage.

CNN on the stage

The lack of confrontation puts sole responsibility to direct the conversation on the moderator (and to a limited extent the network and the audience questions).

It’s my sense that this electoral cycle has had a more sustained focus on the role of the major networks and their roles and “biases” in the debates themselves. But these pseudo-controversies over network coverage have come at the expense of actual engagement with controversial issues.

Ads and promos from CNN don’t make me feel much better about the level of discourse. I’ll leave you with this tweet from CNN hyping tonight’s debate.