Modern Political Debates Are a Disaster for Our Civic Life—We Should Demand Better

Some 10 minutes into the “debate” last week between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his California counterpart, Gavin Newsom, I—a confirmed debate devotee since my 9-year-old self watched Richard Nixon and John Kennedy square off in a series of substantive, policy-and world-view-driven forums prior to the 1960 presidential election—turned it off.

Committed as I am to keeping up with the affairs of the day—which includes the almost uniformly contentious and dismal exercises that pass for modern political debates—I was suddenly overcome at the spectacle playing out in front of me. To slightly alter the Howard Beale character’s vehemence in the 1976 film, “Network”: “I’m frustrated as hell, and I’m not going take this anymore!”

So I clicked the remote and settled back into reading the novel calling kindly for my attention from the table next to me, my blood pressure all the gladder for my decision.

Nevertheless, the whole experience later had me thinking back to my previous posts on this matter in September, 2020. The first addressed the infinitely more civilized and chewy qualities of the Kennedy-Nixon debates.

The second put forth an imaginative exercise for Joe Biden to refuse any future debates with his 2020 opponent Donald Trump, and which I would recommend for him again in 2024 absent a massive, strictly enforced overhaul of the entire presidential debate structure.

It’s that latter point I’d like to explore here.



The coarsening of our political culture has been a long time a-building. Some observers actually trace it back to the very Kennedy-Nixon debates I cite as exemplars of the genre. As the first debates of the television age, they foretold all of television’s inherent capacity to both ennoble and degrade cultural, political, and every other form of discourse it trains its cameras on.

Left to its own devices, it was perhaps inevitable that television would allow our politics to devolve into just another form of superficial mass “entertainment,” with conflict at its core.

We are not so far, after all, from the gladiator blood sports that ancient Romans conducted “to distract the poor from their poverty,” as one historical source puts it, then adding:“Over time, the games became more spectacular and elaborate as emperors felt compelled to outdo the previous year’s competitons.”

The mass media hit that is the “Ultimate Fighting Championships” is an all-too-glaring example of the above. This tendency of media to forge beyond previous constraints in pursuit of ever more gritty drama seems to be working just fine to keep our eyeballs glued to screens and money flowing, but at what cost?  What we can readily see is the disaster it is proving to be for our politics with every new campaign season.

Though I was spared the sight of this via my early desertion of the other night’s debate, DeSantis apparently saw fit at one point to hold up a printed page with brown splotches all over it, indicating, he intoned, “an app that plots human feces that are found on the streets of San Francisco.”

Which begat the realization that someone actually observed and noted the precise locations of these “sightings” and created an app (a government agency, perhaps?), whereupon the DeSantis campaign printed and handed a map for the candidate to display on national television as evidence to prove what a bad governor Newsom is.

The mind reels.


So: pursuant to that and countless other stunts candidates have seen fit to pull in pursuit of a defining debate “moment,” what are we to do?

Let’s start with this: a most basic reflection that under no circumstances would any of us ever train our children to engage in the shouting, angry, accusatory, combative, ad hominem character assassination we regularly see on display in political debates today.

The unwillingness to concede an inch, the unconcealed disdain and distortion of each other’s views and character, the aggressive, omnipresent, ape-like posturing, Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley, for just one example, screeching over one another like alley cats for extended periods while moderators look on, seemingly helpless (or unwilling?) to call a halt: Oh, my word!

First-grade teachers the world over would nip all such behavior in the bud the second it appears in fulfilling their duty to inculcate their students with the basic civilities that are supposed to define us as human, finally emerged from the jungle.

So if all these behaviors would be intolerable from our 6-year-olds, why do we countenance, if not encourage them, in our political class? What has happened to us? Why is there no movement to turn down the temperature on these events whose strange, singular virtue is only that they manage to bring all political persuasions together in widely agreed condemnation?

It’s hard to imagine who gains from this spectacle other than the scores of talking heads on post-debate panels pulling down paychecks by telling us who they think “won,” based most often on how “tough” (synonyms: loud, vitriolic, mendacious) a given candidate is in fending off attacks and counter-attacking in return.

Is it any wonder that millions of us have turned away from debates (precious few people I ever talk to can stomach watching), while many millions more have forsaken politics altogether, calling a not entirely undeserved pox on all politicians’ houses?

Name me the Commissar of Debates with dictatorial powers to set their terms and here’s what I’d do. (And please do feel free to suggest your own format improvements in the Comments section below.)



• I’d have only one moderator who serves throughout the entire presidential debate season. This person should be a seasoned, studiously non-partisan journalist or bright public figure who is conversant with the issues of the day and acceptable to all parties. Pay this person very well to be a steady, sober, persistent questioner who does not consider or make their self central to the proceedings.

• Do away with live audiences, which only encourages grandstanding by debate participants and a carnival atmosphere that projects out to the television audience at home.

• End commercial and network sponsorship, with debates playing only on public television, commercial-free, no one selling anything, with only one bathroom break for participants and the home audience,

Gather the best and most thoughtful minds in public intellectual life and vest them with the responsibility and authority as a Rules Committee to set stringent ground rules for the comportment of all debate participants. This would include, among other considerations, an absolute ban on shouting, interrupting, name-calling, ad hominem attacks and plain lies proclaimed by any participant. (Near-instant fact-checking and correction in live time of pure falsehoods could be a potent weapon against the rampant dishonesty that is a prime currency of modern debates.)

• In support of the rules suggested above, render each candidate’s microphone mute when it is not their turn to speak.

• Have the currently existing Commission on Presidential Debates require each campaign to post a bond of, say, $5 million or more before each debate, with every infraction of the rules set forth and judged by the Rules Committee in attendance at each debate resulting in a substantial cash deduction from that bond, the proceeds going to some charity(ies) mutually agreed upon in advance.

• Have each participant sign a pledge not only to observe both the spirit and specificity of the guidelines set forth by the Rules Committee, but also to extend that commitment to the basic courtesies, respect and consideration for others that are the very hallmarks of civilization, and which should be all the more expected of every person seeking this most solemn position of such enormous and lasting impact on the world.


All too idealistic by half? My question is why we should feel encumbered to settle for any less.

Ultimately, those who watch are in control. No one watching, no reason for debates. What is to prevent a concerted nationwide movement to boycott debates until we end the current abhorrent format and employ some reasonable version of the proposals above?

Until then, let’s just stop and let the powers that be know we won’t be watching, because it’s counterproductive to all our cherished values, and….We don’t have to take this anymore!


“You need to calm down/You’re gettin’ too loud”—sound advice for every party, in every political season…


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8 comments to Modern Political Debates Are a Disaster for Our Civic Life—We Should Demand Better

  • Frederick Dodge  says:

    Thank you for your timely observation. I was much too young for the Kennedy-Nixon debates – ah youth! What I viewed last week was repugnant and thank heaven I did not make it to the Poo Placard held by the DeSatan. Cancelling the non-responders mic is essential. I like the bond for Charity idea. Entertainment is not what I call the current malaise of National politics. It is a disgrace, and we must do better in selecting representatives that reflect the coming and current generations of Americans. The Old White Guy club is in need of a serious upgrade to actually benefit Citizens of all stripes. Kissinger has led the way – sadly, holding out to 100 years of age. And wreaking havoc on our planet – just one old white guy. We hope and hope.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      You’re right, Frederick, your aptly framed “disgrace” that is our modern politics doesn’t quite fit the bill of “entertainment” as we generally know it. I suspect it’s more akin to taking a kind of sadistic pleasure when we see our tribe “taking it to” our counterparts, or the voyeuristic appeal of emergency vehicles that Jay mentions below. I do think the media does way more than it should in treating politics like a sports match, though—more akin to boxing than any other sport. Who’s ahead & behind, who’s scoring points, who’s “punching above their weight,” who’s retreating & regrouping, whose handlers in the corner are effectively binding up cuts and adapting strategies for the next round.

      Sure, politics is metaphorically like sports and like war, too, for that matter. But one of the tragedies of our time is that politics is far too often understood literally as war by participants, and a lot of that is directly attributable, I think, to the elimination of guardrails of respect, civility, cooperation, and compromise that democracy depends on to sustain itself. It’s a conundrum we do not appear to be in very good position to correct at the moment, though I do think meaningful reform of our debate structure would be a good place to start.

      Many thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Although I didn’t tune in to the Newsom-DeSantis spectacle, I confess ( with some embarassment) that, as a political junkie, I have indulged, and regaled, in the debate circuses of recent years. That is not to say that I believe them to be substantive in any informative way. For me I suppose it has been more akin to the need to look across the road to try and figure out why the ambulance, police and fire trucks are gathered at a scene. It is curiosity of the unspeakable- – -and it is entertainment. And I think it is the entertainment fixation of our media-driven culture that has, in part, created the grotesque spectacle that “political debates” have become. I’m in full agreement with your characterization of the beyond-the -pale and unacceptable behaviors of participants; and that we learned how to better behave and communicate in kindergarten. I am also fully on board with your recommendations for reform. The most powerful of your list, I have long believed, is the power of the moderator(s) to mute a mic when necessary. Perhaps we could add that the cameras should also be instructed to black out the individual being muted. Just wipe them out (a “time-out” for a moment while they gather themselves and take pause to consider civil behavior. I’m not certain how this reform comes about, but clearly those televising the events have some power in imposing their will to produce a more productive, informative, discussion. I agree that we have every right, and ought to find ways to demand responsible reform.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Could not agree more with your analysis Andrew but alas the current format “works” for the media outlets that care far more about ratings, than intellectually respectful and robust debating. I purposefully avoided the recent Gov mosh pit but must say the current state of our political debates has as much in common with Oxford (or any of the intellectually legit models) debating as Professional Wrestling has in common with actual Olympic or College Wrestling – only the name remains but the structures/goals/”rules of the road” etc could not be more different. As everyone has noted above mic muting is such a simple and powerful little step that should have been done long ago, but this is verbal mud-wrestling and any of your far too-logical recommendations run directly counter to the media frenzy goals of those responsible for the sad state of our political discourse.

    PS LOVED the Taylor Swift video, it is perfectly resonant w/the topic at hand, I have come to admire her media persona even if her music is not at the top of my playlist!

    • Jay Helman  says:

      You are right on target, Kevin. “intellectually respectful and robust debating” is not desirable to the American public and therefore a loser for media outlets. Lamentably, this is the culture in which we live. I fear that the consequences will someday (if not already) be substantial.

  • David Jolly  says:

    Andrew, send your debate terms to the national Democratic and Republican committees (plus all the major TV news networks) asap. But $5 million for the infraction bond? Chump change. $50 million? $250 million maybe.

    Thanks for another spot-on post. Loved the YouTube video too. Swift does irony pretty well. She knows how to rile them up as she’s telling them to calm down.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    As others have mentioned, your list of the seven improvements to the present debate format are magnificent. I also like Jay’s addendum, the camera focuses solely on the speaker, to your list. That makes eight which is a nice even number. Perhaps it could attract a too often overlooked voting group, arachnologists and octopi enthusiasts. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Hey, I just thought of another one; give it a Jeopardy/Monopoly-like format. All candidates begin with 1000 points and a map of Iowa. Honest answers earn candidates 100 points. Those which actually answer the queries earn 200 points. Those responses showing some semblance of intelligence add 300 points to the coffer. The big payoff, 500 points, are those which enlighten or increase the viewers’ understanding of how our government operates such as “what has a preamble, seven articles and twenty-seven amendments?” This would eliminate the “who won the debate?” segment in any network’s post-debate assessment. Of course, each contestant (excuse me, candidate) must pass a physical (i.e. ten push-ups) and more importantly an MSE (mental state exam). If one achieves both, a definite rarity, the California primary votes are his/hers at the convention!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, your emergency vehicles reference is apt—truly, what a bloody (metaphorical) wreck our debates are today! (I’m a bit agog this morn reading a few headlines from last nite’s Republican presidential mudfest, which I avoided, thank goodness…)
    I also like your recommendation of the camera focused only on the speaker (along with the mic being muted), so we are not subjected to the sighs, frowns, and strained laughs of others on the debate stage when the speaker is tearing into them.

    Kevin, oh God, it’s almost painful to see your reference to Oxford debates, a stark reminder of the total bastardization of the entire concept of “debating” we have been subjected to in this country for far too long. As for the media’s chase of ratings by making debates mostly akin to mud wrestling, you’re probably right, though it does make me think that if only the mudfest will attract a large audience, maybe we can do without that portion of the audience altogether, put the debates on public television as I suggest so advertising $ don’t matter, and restore civil, issues-driven debate for the however shrunken audience that remains. After all, there’s plenty of actual entertainment-driven wrestling & worse to give the mudfest fans their fill in today’s 3-million channel or so multi-verse!

    David, I’m glad both you & Kevin mentioned the Taylor Swift video. She always makes me laugh, and as always, there is a not-unserious point or three she doesn’t disguise behind those impressive production values. Deep dive on her coming sometime in the near-ish future, stay tuned!

    Robert, the sad part of your otherwise inspired suggestions for debate reform is they probably would work in reaping a bonanza of additional millions of viewers. Kind of like how we craftily cajole children into doing chores: just make a damn game out of it! (Something tells me you very likely employed that strategy with your kids, am I right?)

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