The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to redesign the debates for our current political climate

Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on July 30.
Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on July 30. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Amanda Ripley is an Emerson Collective senior fellow and a contributor to the Atlantic.

When normal life gets upended, most of us try to pretend it isn’t happening. In a restaurant, diners see smoke rolling across the ceiling, and they often just sip their drinks. Every firefighter has a story like this. So does every doctor: When patients learn they have cancer, some simply deny the diagnosis, at least for a while.

As a journalist specializing in disasters, I saw this kind of creative denial in all manner of catastrophes — from market crashes to hurricanes. This summer, I saw it again, while watching the Democratic debates. First came the self-serious moderators, trolling for conflict. Next came the candidates, powdered and prepped. Cue the opening statements!

This is how presidential debates have gone since the first one was televised in 1960. But back then, three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time. Today, only 17 percent do. Meanwhile, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans feels significant trust for TV news. Nearly twice as many Americans trust banks. Banks.

Ratings may soar when cable TV networks compete to host primary season debates, but that's bad for objective journalism, argues media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

Millions of Americans believe the system is rigged, or that their own voices don’t matter. That’s how we got President Trump. A public without faith in its institutions is vulnerable to demagogues. And, so far, the debates have done nothing to restore that faith. CNN brought nine tractor-trailers full of gear to the Fox Theatre in Detroit for July’s debate, but the more produced these events get, the phonier they feel.

As we brace ourselves for more, this week in Houston, it’s worth asking: What would it look like if we redesigned this ritual for this polarized moment? If we accept that politicians and the media are deeply distrusted, what then?

One way to get people to trust you is to trust them first. In other words, journalists should ask voters what they want to know about candidates, and then deliver.

So what do Democratic voters want? Seventy percent said they want a candidate who can unite the country, according to a CBS News survey. That’s not a narrow margin. In the states with the earliest primaries, a notable two-thirds said they want a nominee who would work with Republicans to get things done once in office.

But that doesn’t mean Democrats want a moderate. That’s not what they’re saying. When journalists frame the debates as a tug of war between centrists and leftists, they miss the point. “That’s an old model,” says Tim Dixon of More in Common, a nonprofit that researches political divides. “It doesn’t speak to the reality of people’s lives.”

Roughly two-thirds of Americans do not identify with either political extreme, Dixon and his colleagues have found. But they also reject the status quo. “The exhausted majority is actually really fed up with the system,” he says. They are open to a big change agenda. But what they want more is a leader who understands them. “They’re not asking, ‘What will you do to solve this?’ They don’t trust politicians to deliver anyway. It’s more, ‘Do you understand?’ ”

The ideal candidate for this moment is someone who “gets” the whole country and can prove it. When people feel understood, they become more willing to hear different ideas, research has shown. “If someone can speak to the real pain that people are experiencing, recognizing that some people’s pain is deeper but everybody’s struggles matter, they can put out a message that says, ‘I am going to listen to you, and I am going to care about what you care about, even if we don’t agree about every policy solution,’ ” says Andrew Hanauer of the One America Movement, an organization that combats polarization.

To help identify these candidates, moderators could ask different questions. For example: Who in your inner circle routinely challenges your beliefs? Explain why someone might oppose abortion or gun control and still be a good person. Can you think of solutions to these issues so that neither side would have to compromise their core beliefs?

Or get rid of the debate format altogether. Is the United States really yearning for more argument? Instead, give candidates an exercise, like in a real job interview, Hanauer suggests. Put them in American living rooms where they listen to people whose life experiences and beliefs challenge their own. See which candidates can stay curious, without necessarily agreeing. What happens when you put Pete Buttigieg in the home of an African American family in Chicago? Or if you put Elizabeth Warren in a white evangelical Christian home in rural Tennessee? What if these families decided who “won” this contest — based on which candidate talked with them, not down to them?

Journalists should grant voters more control, listening to what they want and even giving up their own seats. “We’re primed now to see politics as a spectacle,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We need to move into a space where voters are no longer spectators, where we’re forced to be citizens again.”

Unifying the country might sound like a soft idea, but it will be much more difficult than reforming health care. And more important. The country is damaged, and the damage predates Trump. Americans want a leader who is ambidextrous — someone who can speak to all kinds of people. They see the smoke, and they’re calling for help, if anyone is listening.

Read more:

David Byler: The DNC had a smart plan for shrinking the Democratic field. What happened?

Paul Waldman: Why Democratic ideas will dominate the 2020 campaign

Ed Rogers: Will Trump’s behavior decide the 2020 election?

Jonathan Capehart: Democrats want to beat Trump. Biden wants to be the one to do it.