A format for better debates, please?

Hey, we all like actual debates, right? That is, the format that’s very much not what we saw the last two nights, where people talk to each other and don’t struggle for airtime. For intellectual folks, people directly addressing each other can be stimulating and interesting. For everyone else (and, well, us too), as we saw when two candidates go went it, that’s the part of the event that’s entertaining—and possibly tells you more about the people.

So… why the hell do we have moderators insisting they can’t talk to each other, and taking up minutes with their questions? It only ensures that only the rudest and loudest will get into a back and forth—and as we’ve seen, it allows for the rules to be applied haphazardly. I have a proposal for better debates:

  1. Before the debate, every candidate is given the same long list of topics, all brief and general: e.g., climate change, nuclear weapons, North Korea, election security. They return these lists is ranked order.

  2. The top choices are set as the topics for the debate. The number chosen is the same as the number of candidates onstage, or an integral multiple thereof. The rest go back into the pool for the next debate. New topics can be added to the pool between debates, so news events can be referenced but only briefly. “Iran response” is fine; “did Iran attach mines to those ships?” is not.

  3. Each topic is given (length of debate / (number of topics – 2)) minutes. For a 100 minute debate and eight topics, that’s ten minutes each, broken down as follows: 2 minute opening, 2 minute response, 1 minute each of followups by the same speakers, and four 1-minute followups by everyone else. Vary lengths as necessary to match available time, but not more than 25%; if they have to be shorter than 90 and 45 seconds, pick fewer topics.

  4. Everyone gets one turn in each slot. Which slot they get for which topic is assigned first by how they ranked the topics, with ties broken by the same rankings by which they qualified for the debate. Someone polling at 12% beats the other at 10%, for example. The guy who only barely squeaked in shouldn’t expect to get what they want unless no one wants it. The same ranking is used to pick the topics and assign the slots, so no gaming the system by ranking your actual first choice tenth—it likely won’t be used at all, then.

    No one knows which slots they have until the debate, when each lectern has the entire schedule on a display a few minutes before it starts.

    Example: Candidate 1, who made this their most important topic, talks for two minutes; candidate 2 ranked this first or second and responds. 1 then speaks again for a minute, followed by 2 again for a minute. 3 and 4, who ranked this topic higher than others, each have an assigned minute. The next minute is randomly assigned. The last minute is left open until the debate: candidates can press a button on their lectern to take it, but can only do this once for the entire debate. First-come, first-served, except that the first person who hasn’t spoken on the topic takes precedence over the first person who has. Anyone who never presses their button gets that minute extra for closing.

  5. There are no moderators, but there is an M.C. who normally keeps their mouth shut after introducing everyone, to do things like shush the audience. The first speaker frames the topic, the next speakers can follow their lead or not as they choose. The topic of the period is always on a chyron at the bottom of the screen. Each candidate can say whatever they like.

  6. When it’s someone’s turn to speak, their mic turns on. When they have 15 seconds left, an audible tone chimes that everyone (audience included) can hear. The volume on their mic gradually declines and turns off at the end—final words will be at low volume, hence they don’t close with a zinger that causes audience reaction to eat the next person’s time. (Get your prepared soundbites in when you start, and eat your own time, folks.) Finishing 15 seconds early, not a bad idea.

    If a speaker stops early, they can press a button and bank that time for another reply. Timers and time bank displays are on the lectern; the candidate presses a button to activate their bank for fifteen seconds, which restores the volume to the mic if they’re in the last 15 seconds—but it’ll start dropping again immediately unless they press the button twice.

  7. The cameras are pre-set and will go to the person with a live mic, but will usually split screen with the prior speaker. A second 4K video feed is provided that shows all candidates at all times, high enough resolution to see reactions not on the main broadcast (which most people won’t see until after the debate, but it could be simultaneously broadcast).

  8. The remaining two 10-minute periods are open sessions at the middle and the end, each speaker has 10/N minutes to say whatever they like. (Or three 7-minute sessions for opening, midpoint, and closing.) Mics are live the entire time for the last open session, their entire time bank is automatically added, and the next speaker’s time doesn’t start until the audience is quiet. (And maybe cap the maximum time a person can bank, so no one can shut up for two hours and talk for 10 minutes straight at the end.)

  9. A transcript of the debate is posted as soon as possible. Each minute or two’s transcript is posted on its own page in addition to the full trascript. Candidates have 24 hours to post a short reply to what anyone said (e.g., limited to 200 words, no links allowed but “see my website for details” is fine—you just can’t post a keyword to a 2,000 word reply). After 24 hours, the speaker has 24 hours to post a reply of the same length.

That leaves 20 minutes in a two-hour broadcast, which I assume will be used to make the entire thing humane. Put in a three-second break when one mic turns off and the next turns on, or a short break between topics. Two five-minute breaks for everyone to be off camera. Whatever works. Networks will probably want a buffer zone so the rules don’t make the debate run overtime.

I don’t have any illusions that this will bring Oxford-style debate to our politics, but it’s fair, it gives everyone the chance to talk on what they most care about, and I think it balances actual discussion and debate with the need to keep everyone to very short amounts of time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *