We have been treated to two ugly Presidential debates and one ugly Vice-Presidential debate this election year.  However, there are three simple reforms that would substantially improve the quality of future debates.

(1) Only the microphone of the candidate speaking should be turned on.

We are increasingly subjected to candidates for the most powerful and responsible position in the world (probably the most powerful and responsible position in all of history) yelling at and talking over each other like drunks in the audience at a roller derby.  In the September 25, Presidential debate, Clinton interrupted Trump approximately 10 times, and Trump interrupted Clinton around 40 times.  Significant portions of the October 2 debate between Vice Presidential candidates Kaine and Pence were simply unintelligible because the candidates insisted on talking at the same time, despite the efforts of the moderator to maintain order.

There is absolutely no professional or political context in which elegantly interrupting others or being interrupted by others is a useful skill, certainly not being President of the United States.  Interruptions can be eliminated from the debates by the simple expedient of turning off a candidate’s microphone as soon as he or she has finished speaking, and turning on the other candidate’s microphone only when it is his or her turn to speak.

(2) There should be no live audience for the debate.

The first televised Presidential debate, between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, did not have a live audience.  Since live audiences were first allowed for Presidential debates in 1976, they have promised not to cheer, applaud, or otherwise react.  And at every debate they do so, regardless of how often they are admonished by the moderator.  Audiences are an unnecessary and self-inflicted distraction from the debate. The millions of people watching at home do not need to be told what the laugh lines or zingers are in the debate.  In fact, it is more objective to let them decide for themselves.  Obviously, “stunt” formats like “town hall style” debates should be eliminated.  We are choosing the President, not staging a performance of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

(3) When a candidate’s comments go over time, that much additional time should be added to the other candidate’s next comments.

Moderators try to keep candidates to their time limits, but it is impractical to expect the moderator to make them stop talking instantly.  Cutting off their microphones before they have finished speaking would be one solution, but it would be very jarring for viewers, and would seem rude and intrusive on the part of the moderators.  However, with contemporary technology it is should be very easy to keep track of how many seconds a speaker goes over time and to add that much to the other candidate’s time.  This will provide a disincentive for a candidate to go over time, without putting moderators in an awkward position.

The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates were a model of substance and decorum, and whatever your political affiliation you can agree that the two candidates were articulate and qualified.  We can and should return to high political expectations.

About The Author

Bryan W. Van Norden

Bryan W. Van Norden is a professor of philosophy at Vassar College, and the author of numerous books, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Hackett Publishing, 2011). You can follow him on twitter: @BryanVanNorden. The views expressed in this essay are his own.