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Transforming a Tradition: Rethinking Debates with Civic Hall

By Tom Glaisyer / 2016 September 26th

The 2016 election cycle has been described as unique or like no other. Clearly at the Presidential level this election has been unlike other recent cycles, but it is also remarkably different in another way: the public is getting much of their news beyond television broadcasts, and they are responding, sharing, and engaging with politics in ways they never have before.

It is this change in the nature of our communications that Civic Hall’s Rethinking Debates project seeks to explore. It does so, not blindly, nor in an “add technology and the world will be better” kind of way, but rather with the sense that given the opportunity to engage the public before, during, and after debates, we should use it to explore how people learn about candidates and their positions.

There is no question that the challenges for productive debates are significant. Political polarization in the United States is more pronounced. Americans now have shorter attention spans than a goldfish. The standard format of a televised debate has turned—despite the efforts of moderators no less experienced or skilled than in the past—into what one might describe as a three ring circus. The networks may be expecting massive viewership for the upcoming Presidential debates but its viewership that is partly driven by the sort of enthusiasm one has for a wrestling match rather than something Presidential. In a context where disillusionment within the electorate with politics and candidates is extensive it seems more likely that the debates will not inform, but incite, not engage, but aggravate, not clarify but confuse.

In spite of all that, debates continue to be a staple of the campaign season in many races. They are seen as a key test of a candidate, intellectually, temperamentally, even a candidates’ body language and wardrobe choices become the subject of countless post-debate news clips.

Several groups are working on this challenge. The Annenberg Public Policy Center formed a working group and issued a report advocating for multiple innovations in the debates. The Open Debate Coalition has also been advocating for specific reforms around the debate format. Democracy Fund’s grantee, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, also recently issued civility standards for candidate debates. Politifact will undoubtedly be fact-checking the claims made during the debate and the Internet Archive, also a grantee, is using its capacity to help journalists and the public see how TV covers debates.

The Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program focuses specifically on supporting efforts to help people understand and participate in the democratic process. We invested in Civic Hall’s work because, as their new report reminds us: “The debates are [the public’s] one opportunity in the campaign to see and hear the candidates speak directly to each other in a face-to-face encounter.”

In their extensive report, “Rethinking Debates: A Report On Increasing Engagement,” and at their recent mini-conference, Civic Hall brought together experts to explore technologies and platforms that have the potential to strengthen debates, increase their relevance, and ensure they continue to be central, but in different ways than in the past.

A few of the most promising ideas include:

  • CNN’s use of a technologically advanced auditorium and polling of an in-person audience to add nuance and immediate responses that could be fed back into the debate via the moderator seemed to successfully pair the strengths of a moderator and an advanced facility.
  • Google’s election hub, a platform developed in collaboration with Watchout a local organization in Taiwan. The platform allowed the public to generate questions for Presidential candidates. It elicited 6,500 questions that generated 220,000 votes and 5 questions were used in the debates.
  • At a state level: In New York, Silicon Harlem hosted a debate and utilized Microsoft’s Pulse tool and the above mentioned Open Debates Coalition had their question generation tool adopted for a debate in Florida. Both provided opportunities for the public in the United States to become more engaged in driving the questions used prior to and during the debate.

We hope that as this debate season gets underway we will see more examples both at the state and local and perhaps at the Presidential level that will be new models to follow if we’re to better serve the American public as they consider who they wish to vote for.

Click here to learn more about Civic Hall’s Rethinking Debates Project.

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