Watching the presidential debate last week, reminded me how inefficient verbal debate is for comparing and supporting ideas with facts. Why does it seem like we’re still watching debates from the 1850′s instead of the 21st century? Why are we judging the future leader of America by their rhetorical skills, when most of the problems they face will be far more complex? The key quality both candidates continue to support is the role of the president as a wise technocrat - someone who can manage budgets, and make a myriad of decisions based on the best available information.
Nixon Kennedy debate 1960
Romney Obama debate 2012
Has the format of the debates substantially changed since 1858? No. The candidates have shorter periods of time to respond (the debates in 1858 lasted up to 4 hours), but the only real modern update is that they’re broadcast. Even now the only real difference between listening on the radio or watching the debate on TV, is seeing the non-verbal communication like body language, but the presentation of facts or sources remains purely verbal.
Where else in modern America do we expect to be persuaded by verbal arguments alone? Even pastors use church bulletins with sermon notes or big screens to structure their speeches. It’s a basic improvement, but when I argue through problems with other people I try to use a whiteboard to draw out more of what the key the differences are.
Technology has made huge advances since the first debates in 1858 and even the 1960′s. President Obama uses an iPad on a daily basis to read the news. Why can’t we use something like an iPad for the candidates to interact with facts as they debate, compared to the empty verbal tricks we get now?
Give the candidates and the moderator an agreed upon set of common tools and figures. If the topic of the debate is the economy and the federal budget, let each candidate show how they would change it. For example, they could use this great graphic from the Congressional Budget Office and use a touchscreen (like the Microsoft Surface CNN loves to use) to show how they would change the share of spending if elected:
Limit the options so that the focus is still on the debate and not on the technology. They could use a whiteboard (or chalkboard) for all I care. My point is, by adding some form of visual communication as the candidates debate the budget, they can show back and forth what elements they would cut or expand.
Cite Your Sources
Require the campaigns to live tweet the sources cited during the debate so everyone can read more and verify the accuracy of each claim. The teams prep the candidates with facts to cite throughout the debate, why not post those live to Twitter as they talk about them or in a full wrap up at the end of the debate? As it stands now we’re left to sort through 3rd party sources 0r the biased spin of the campaigns.
If you failed to show your work like this in English class you would fail! How can you run for president without backing up the claims you make to the nation? You know they’re gathering the sources now, just show your work!