Include Independents—and Joe Rogan—in the 2024 Presidential Debates
And Bid Adieu to Your Grandparents' Curated Contests.
US presidential debates are overdue for a refresh. It may come in the 2024 election season.
Getting the update right may be just the jolt required to disrupt the tired, outdated, self-serving partisan duopoly that’s holding the nation and the world hostage to America’s dysfunctional governance.
An opportunity for change is rapping insistently at the door. The Republican Party is balking at participating in the next election cycle. Should the Republicans follow through on this threat, the current presidential debate system will end.
No matter what your partisan affiliation, if you’re a voter this might be a good thing.
In a fit of absent mindedness, the American people have reposed administration of presidential debates with an unaccountable group of insiders who reliably represent the status quo: the Commission on Presidential Debates.
This little-known entity was established by Republicans and Democrats in 1987. The CPD is intended to set procedures and offer an enduring institutional framework for this important task of civic education.
The CPD is interposed between presidential candidates and the voters.
Among the questions delegated by the American people to the CPD:
—Which candidates can participate?
—Should only Democrats and Republicans be included? If there are Independent and third-party candidates, what qualifications should be imposed?
—What issues can be discussed?
—What will be the format?
—Who will moderate?
—What authority will the moderators have?
The power held by the CPD is as profound. Televised presidential debates are uniquely significant elements of American civic education and engagement.
A Vanished World
The CPD was conceived in the long shadow of the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. There were no further televised presidential debates between the major party candidates until 1976.
The premises of the commission reflect the realities of a vanished world:
—In 1987 there were a limited number of television outlets. Legacy networks—ABC, CBS, NBC—were supplemented by the Public Broadcasting System and CNN.
—The legacy print media was dominant. The New York Times and Washington Post held an outsized place in the national dialogue.
—The most respected legacy media outlets earned credibility by a relentless commitment to non-ideological and non-partisan reportage. This was not always achieved, but it was the ideal by which they were evaluated.
—The duopoly of the Democrats and Republicans was so entrenched as to be unquestioned.
Recall how much else was different in 1987. There was a path-breaking, new television series: The Simpsons. President Reagan spoke at the Berlin Wall, publicly challenging the Soviet Union to “tear down” that apparently indelible scar on the face of Europe.
A gallon of gas cost less than a dollar at the pump. The inflation rate was under 1%. Federal Reserve interest rates were over 8%. The US stock market crashed in October.
The US population was estimated to be under 250 million.
A Hinge Moment
Each of the operating assumptions of the CPD has been overtaken by events. Politics, culture, journalism, and the life and work of Americans are so different as to be unrecognizable.
—Would the CPD be designed along the same lines if it were starting today?
—Should the CPD be maintained? Is it necessary?
The prospective withdrawal of the Republican Party follows the Supreme Court’s 2021 denial of review of a challenge to Federal Election Commission regulations relating to the management of presidential debates. These controversies illuminate the extent to which the CPD has become enmeshed in partisan politics and electoral regulatory systems.
This has fostered a sense among many citizens that our current system is fixed, even inevitable. Nothing could be further from truth.
We need to overcome the legacy of 1987—and recover the spirit of 1787.
21st Century Presidential Debates
How would the American founders have comprehended our presidential debates?
There’s no way to know. Yet we can strive for their unique capacity to reconcile soaring idealism and hard-headed realism.
Among the factors to consider:
—The American people are deeply suspicious of our political and governmental systems. They are widely viewed as incompetent in basic functions and corrupt in operation.
—Legacy media have lost their credibility and their reach. The digital age has changed the game:
—People expect and demand transparency, accountability, participation, and choice in every aspect of our lives and work. Politics and government linger as conspicuous outliers.
The duopoly and its adherents have subtly reinforced a widespread assumption that they are necessary gatekeepers and interpreters. The legacy media, undergoing a financial and technological transformation, have striven for corresponding roles, becoming advocates.
The American people don’t require chaperones as we select our future leaders.
We should not continue to accede to elites offering up two choices in presidential elections that resemble arranged marriages. With good reason, George Washington and other founders feared the emergence of a two-party system.
Opening presidential debates to candidates beyond the familiar, standard-issue Democratic and Republican nominees could crystallize a change in public consciousness. Bringing in new moderators and formats, pioneering new modes of public participation could elicit much greater citizen engagement.
Shuttering the CPD could be the first step on a necessary journey of far reaching reform and innovation.
Image Credits: First Kennedy-Nixon Debate, Chicago, Monday, September 26, 1960: Associated Press, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.