Primary Debates Are a Demagogue's Dream
The problem isn't just what the voters want, but what the show encourages them to want.
THE MILWAUKEE DEBATE was a travesty. Not that the moderators asked the wrong questions (though, seriously, UFOs?) or that the candidates gave the wrong answers—rather, the entire format is guaranteed to elicit the kind of behavior that least conduces to good leadership.
There should be no live audiences at debates. Live audiences are going to scream the loudest for the most pugilistic and simple-minded pitches from candidates. They are going to encourage cat fights. In last night’s debate, the moderators had to lecture the audience to hold it down, urging that the more time they spent cheering or booing, the less time would be available for the candidates to address the “issues you care about.” But that assumes more than is in evidence. Many of those who traveled to Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum are the kind of people who cheer for violence at hockey games. Candidates invited viewers to tune in with images of popcorn.
Because the rules permit candidates whose names are mentioned to get a 30-second right of reply, and because each person can only expect about 12 minutes of airtime in a two-hour “debate,” the game is structured to encourage sniping. Thus we get these dominance displays, put downs, and cross talk that do little to enlighten viewers, and that, by the way, advantage men over women because their voices tend to be louder—though Nikki Haley did well in schooling Vivek Ramaswamy.
The cattle-call nature of these shows, with eight or 10 or more candidates arrayed according to polling, guarantees that candidates will seek a “breakout moment” that can be replayed on social media in the hours and days following the event. The moderators have no time for follow-ups or to push back on misrepresentations.
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Just as party primaries are structured to choose the most extreme candidates, these debates are structured to reward the most skilled demagogues. Sure enough, in a post-debate focus group on CNN, a majority identified Ramaswamy as the winner.
Ramaswamy, like Trump, is exactly the sort of politician the Founders knew would crop up in a democratic system. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton noted that figures with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” would appear. He hoped the Electoral College would thwart their rise to the presidency. We’ve since eliminated that function of the Electoral College, but though we rely on the wisdom of the voters to choose well without the help of eminent citizens of judgment and discernment (as the Electoral College was originally conceived), we need not introduce candidates to voters in a fashion that penalizes the most sober, responsible ones and boosts the slick provocateurs.
If that CNN focus group was representative, expect to see a polling bump for Ramaswamy, a man who 1) dabbles in 9/11 trutherism and January 6th denialism, 2) proposes ending support for Ukraine and lifting sanctions on Russia, 3) would reduce funding of the federal government by 75 percent, 4) would shut down the Department of Education and abolish teachers unions, 5) calls climate change a “hoax,” and 6) has never served in the military or been elected county clerk. Like his role model, Trump, he tells audiences that solutions are “simple” and easy and claims to be a truth teller. He speaks fluently and confidently, a living example of the aphorism “frequently wrong but never in doubt.”
Short of returning to the original conception of the Electoral College (obviously impossible in our time), what can we do to limit the damage demagogues inflict?
Change the format of these media circuses. Get creative. Perhaps each candidate could sit down with interlocutors for a 10-minute Q&A, permitting time for substance as well as real-time fact checking. In a one-on-one interview, the questioner could ask Ramaswamy, “With exactly what authority would you ‘abolish’ teachers unions or reduce the federal budget by 75 percent?”
A different debate format would not solve the appetite for extremism, cruelty, and showmanship evident among GOP primary voters. But these big stage productions with huge audiences encourage all the worst tendencies. If people want gladiatorial contests, why not give it to them straight—cage matches, choice of weapons. Are you not entertained?