Political Debates Are Awful. It's Time to Get Rid of Them—for the Good of the Country | Opinion

Like sticking your face into a vat of floating apples or weathering an onslaught of pumpkin spice-flavoring, candidate debates have become an intolerable rite of Fall.

At their best, debates are insipid, a pointless 19th century anachronism that convince no one and change nothing. Only 10 percent of voters even claim that debates influence their vote, a figure that's wildly inflated by political enthusiasts. The more likely reality is what Harvard Business School found, that "debates do not affect vote choice" at all.

The rest of the time, debates are downright harmful, a fusillade of pre-fabbed zingers and base red meat that feeds into already-record levels of partisan anger, or is fed into the campaign social media ATM machine. Like the mindless yelling on CNN's show Crossfire that Jon Stewart took down so brilliantly 18 years ago, these kinds of political "debates" are hurting America.

We would actually save a lot of time if campaigns simply pre-recorded insults to tweet out along with fundraising requests. That would also spare editors the indignity of searching for new synonyms for "spar" to describe these food fights (the most common alternatives being trade barbs, trade blows, and square off). Is this an MMA match or a way to choose our leaders?

Just try to remember a moment when you learned something useful about an issue or a candidate at a debate. Did anything come to mind?

Networks are getting ratings. Candidates are getting fundraising fodder. But what are you getting out of it?

DeSantis, Crist Debate Florida
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and former Gov. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., participate in a debate at the Sunrise Theatre, Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in Fort Pierce, Fla. Crystal Vander Weit/TCPalm.com via AP, Pool

That's why it was so refreshing to see CNN's Dana Bash drop the charade after the first 2020 Trump-Biden debate and simply call it "a shitshow." But she need not have specified that single event: They all are. And they are emblematic of the larger structural problem with the way we do political campaigns these days.

More often than not, today's campaigns are defined by a tail-chasing, four-step process. First, create content (preferably viral, online) to incense your side. Next, fundraise off that anger. Then, use the money to create more ads to further anger your side. Finally, win by edging out the other side on turnout rather than persuading anybody.

When, exactly, do we try to educate voters on policy? Or on the way candidates would approach solving our problems? You know... the things that voters are supposed to use to make choices in a democracy.

Once upon a time, debates filled at least some of that function. Now the tactic in debates and elsewhere is to pivot.

For example, this year, voters say that inflation is their number one concern. Democrats seem to be losing on that issue, and it may cost them the House and Senate. But they have a solid argument to make, if they only cared to: Economists say that Democrats' policies did not cause higher prices, and are likely helping.

Did you know that? I bet you didn't. Because Democrats aren't telling that story at all, either in their ads or in their opportunities to talk to voters. And rather than engage on it during debates, they are pivoting to attack on a different issue, usually abortion.

The universal best practice has become to drown out one set of hyped attacks with another.

This is like your spouse accusing you of not taking out the garbage, and instead of saying "I usually do, but I was held up late at work this week," you yell back, "Well what about your terrible cooking?"

Nothing gets better, everyone gets madder.

The solution is not to give up on talking to voters in a meaningful way. It's to change the way we structure "debates" to make them meaningful.

For example, television host Greta Van Susteren proposed changing the format from an in-class exam to a take-home. Give the candidates specific scenarios to solve—say, how would you develop a new framework to deal with Iran—and then allow them several days to consult with their teams and come up with solutions. "Debates" would be an opportunity for the contenders to present and communicate their ideas, and for voters to see where they align and where they differ.

Or, we could have the candidates show their work. Sometimes leaders need to make decisions in fast-moving situations. A moderator could present a scenario—say, a new financial crisis forming a la 2008—and the candidate would conduct a meeting for one hour with advisers, live on television, to determine a plan of action. The public would get to see how the leader leads, taking in information, asking probing questions, and weighing options. Afterward, the moderator would debrief with the candidate and ask follow up questions: Why were certain alternatives chosen or discarded? What circumstances would have changed their decision?

Another approach: Instead of testing how well each candidate argues with the other, a skill we surely don't need more of in government, how about seeing how well they come to agreement? "Debates" could take the form of a negotiation over a policy program. Viewers would get a true test of each candidate's values and priorities as they bargain over the design of a pre-k initiative or policing reform. The public would see who was willing to listen, work creatively, and compromise.

We can't solve our diseased political culture all at once. But we can reimagine at least some of the mechanisms that can help voters make informed decisions based on substance, not just vitriol.

With trust in government at historic lows and negative partisanship at all-time highs, it is long past time to try something different.

Matt Robison is a writer, podcast host, and former congressional staffer.

The views in this article are the writer's own.