It’s Time to Bring Political Debates into the 21st Century

In 1960, telephones were tethered to cords and only were used for conversation. The news came to us just a few times a day — when the paper landed on our doorstep and when networks aired their news broadcasts. And when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon took part in the nation’s first live televised presidential debate, they stood before cameras and answered questions.

Today we get our news 24/7 on phones and computers. Smartphones allow us to text and to email, to surf the web and to capture and share pictures and videos. Advances in technology have radically changed the way news and information is gathered and disseminated, but as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaign this fall, the format we employ for presidential debates is essentially the same as what it was more than 50 years ago.

Granted the format has been tweaked over the years. Some debates, including the upcoming Oct. 16 exchange at Hofstra University, are in town hall settings that allow audience members to ask questions. CNN and YouTube took things a step further during the 2008 presidential primaries by allowing members of the public to pose questions by uploading videos.

Kennedy-Nixon Debates

But attempts to alter the way we conduct debates have done little to change the basic format of the exchanges. Although we are using new technology and new approaches, we’re using them to do the same old thing. To keep political debates relevant, we need to change our debate process to reflect how we communicate and share ideas in today’s world.

I’d like to see us take a cue from Larry Sabato’s 2007 book A More Perfect Constitution which explored ways we would set up our government and political systems if we were starting from scratch. He asks questions such as, “What if presidents were elected to one-time, six-year terms?”

Want to see how the candidates would act in a real-life situation that a president might encounter? How about putting them through a video game that simulates a day in the White House?

What if we held debates on Twitter instead of in arenas? If we want to make sure candidates follow the rules, a 140-character limit would be more effective than a human moderator. And if the candidates are evasive or speak mistruths, who better than the Twitterverse to call them out – and do so immediately?

After 50 years of following the same basic formula, such proposals may sound radical. But a Twitter exchange, a video game or another new approach could be a welcome change from watching a debate in which the participants deliver lines that have been tested by focus groups, carefully rehearsed and then fine-tuned to the point that they are absolutely devoid of passion and emotion.

More importantly, a more original approach just might provide a better way to judge who is best qualified to serve as our chief executive in the 21st Century.

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