Reform Week: Open Debate

Member Group : Phil English

Politics in its ideal form should be a contest of ideas.

Of course, there is more to it than that. American political practice has always been a mix of sentiments and spectacles, ethnic and party competition, cultural fault lines. Even our idealized political past, in which the Lincoln-Douglas debates figure prominently, always had a hardy rough quality: it is always a treat to reread those historic open-air speeches from the 1858 Illinois Senate contest, and marvel not only at their extemporaneous eloquence, but their rich vituperation. Those guys didn’t pull punches.

Yet at many times in our history great issues were debated, and the public participated. America has enjoyed a rich political culture, fed by one of the greatest freedoms ever claimed by individuals: freedom of speech, enshrined in the First Amendment. If many people now feel that our political system is dysfunctional, it is because they no longer find that political practice presents them with clear, meaningful choices between the candidates seeking to represent them. This is a crisis more of culture than law, and my sense is the solution to this kind of failure is to reform our local civic institutions to change the way campaigns are conducted, reported, and engaged.

Too much of our political campaigns are now atmospherics: polls, empty endorsements, campaign donations and balances. News coverage focuses on these rather than serious issues, which are abstract and are difficult to research and present. Voters end up choosing in response to paid advertising rather than objective information, which of course favors entrenched political figures over newcomers or grassroots alternatives. At least that’s my view from having held office.

There are plenty of panaceas that are offered to overcome these problems, the heartiest of which is Campaign Finance Reform. There are a lot of ways we can improve our campaign finance laws. It’s just that every time we try, we make it worse. The system now more than ever favors incumbents and special interests. My solution: full immediate transparency of campaign, party, and independent expenditures. Then move on to reinvigorate grassroots democracy.

I propose we make campaigns more meaningful by:

1) Sponsoring more debates, with issue oriented formats and substantive exchanges, starting early in the campaign season. Local debates should follow standards as rigorous as presidential debates. This will give all candidates, including novices and independent choices, a chance to be heard on their background and ideas. These debates should be telecast on broadcast, cable, radio and Internet, and local media should be shamed into covering them!

Proper debates need proper sponsors, and sadly the League of Women Voters do less of it now. Other nonpartisan civic and community groups should be brought into this vacuum, and local civics and political science departments should sponsor competitive forums. This is nothing novel- it has just become much less frequent.

I debated every Democrat I ever ran against- and while it didn’t always help me as a candidate, it usually gave voters an opportunity to make better choices.

2) Giving all candidates free ink- like the Sharon Herald in 2000, when they gave each congressional candidate a column on their editorial page every week on a different issue. It helps equalize name recognition and spending differentials. Websites could offer similar virtual forums for exchanges, position papers. Some of these things already exist nationally (e.g. Project Vote Smart), but local efforts could be even more meaningful.

3) Improving political coverage. This is a thorny point, because it implies criticism of our local journalists, many of whom I am personally fond of. However, with limited resources and limited expertise, local news teams can frequently miss important issues and stories.

One of the most dogged complaints I hear from people about campaigns has to do with negative advertising. Voters tire of it and get turned off, but the same criticism is applied to personal attacks AND legitimate challenges to public statements and votes. The voters should have recourse to credible outside arbiters who can flag and expose misleading or defamatory campaign ads or other bad practices.

As in the past, local media should be expected to investigate the accuracy and fairness of campaign claims, report on the counterclaims and bring out the facts. This is hard work and messy, but it is also an obligation. Above all, local media should work to ensure equal time for all candidates and messages. Reporters should strive to draw out candidates on ideas, not political process questions and brights.

Aren’t these standard practice now? Less than you might think.

Are these proposals really "reforms"?

Actually, I think they are, because current political discourse doesn’t seem to offer voters the quality and depth of information to make satisfying choices. There is no easy fix to this, no magic prescription to fix our civic culture. We just need to create more opportunities for people to become engaged, shape elections, and take ownership of the results.