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

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Bryan W. Van Norden is a leading expert on Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. He is the author, editor, or translator of nine books on Chinese and comparative philosophy, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (2011), Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century (2014, with Justin Tiwald), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2nd ed., 2005, with P.J. Ivanhoe), and most recently Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017). Van Norden lives in Singapore, where he is currently Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor at Yale-NUS College. He is also Chair Professor in Philosophy in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University (PRC) and James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy at Vassar College (USA). A recipient of Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mellon fellowships, Van Norden has been honored as one of The Best 300 Professors in the US by The Princeton Review. His hobbies are poker (he has played in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas) and video games.