Political Debates Are Dead. Long Live Political Debates!

For those of us interested in increasing genuine political participation and improving tone and substance, the days are not as dark as the latest debate meme might make it seem.


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Editor’s note: We’re pleased to welcome Christine Cupaiuolo, our new Civic Engagement Fellow, who will be leading the Rethinking Debates project. Over the next 12 months, she will report on how political debates around the world are using innovative formats and social media, focusing on examples that help make these crucial public events more informative, engaging, and responsive to the concerns of voters. This work is made possible with the vital support of the Democracy Fund.

The first Democratic presidential primary debate of 2016 drew a record 15.3 million viewers, smashing the previous record for a Democratic debate by almost 5 million. Nearly 24 million viewers tuned into the first Republican debate, making it the most-watched cable news program of all time.

The most recent GOP debate was a ratings hit for CNBC, but the campaigns were not so thrilled. Some of the Republican candidates are now insisting on more control over everything from who asks the questions and allotted response times, to the camera angles and room temperature

While the ratings and the obsession over details could be read as signs of a boom in civic engagement, or at least interest in robust political discussion, they most likely indicate the opposite. Politics, and political debates, are, more than ever, entertainment: a set of characters and events we watch in anticipation of the next gaffe or shift in narrative.

Yet for those of us interested in increasing genuine political participation and improving tone and substance, the days are not as dark as the latest debate meme might make it seem.

In fact, while technology can devalue political discourse (the very first televised debate famously proved that image has a tendency to—excuse the pun—trump substance), technological innovations, especially in recent years, have been reinvigorating political discussions throughout the world, making it possible to envision debates as dynamic venues for a renewed, democratic approach to politics.

Still, the question remains: How do we figure out what works?

The Rethinking Debates project is taking on this question by exploring global examples of innovative political designs. As the new Civic Engagement Fellow at Civic Hall, I’m excited to be leading this research effort.

I’ll report on interactive debate formats, tools and platforms around the world—from France, where presidential candidates were asked to respond to real-time comments by Facebook users, to Argentina, which recently held its first-ever televised presidential debate, and even on developing countries such as Malawi, to evaluate the impact of the initial adoption of technology on the electoral process. We’ll also look at experiments in the UK, Germany, Japan, and New Zealand, as well as many other countries, as we put together more than a dozen case studies.

The project will explore how voters are driving the conversation on social media and investigate the extent to which communication markers, such as trending topics and hashtags, signify true engagement. The bulk of my research will be presented here, at Civicist, and compiled for a report that will be released in early spring.

Even before some Republican candidates called for doing away with journalists as debate moderators, public opinion in favor of voters asking questions has been growing. I’m interested in identifying the most effective tools for expanding access by considering whether interactive technologies can meaningfully engage voters and perhaps even increase voter turnout. Can they make debates more responsive and accountable to voters’ interests and concerns? And what about potential downsides? For instance, can real-time viewer reaction meters—the “worms” that squiggle across the screen— manipulate public opinion? Are certain technologies causing candidates to further simplify their message to match popular keywords?

I’ve spent a good part of my career finding ways to use digital media to amplify the voices and ideas of people outside the conventional political process. After starting off as a beat reporter covering government and courts, I worked as a researcher for C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, helping to retrace the steps of Alexis de Toqueville’s 1831 journey that would become the basis of “Democracy in America.”

I later founded PopPolitics.com, an early online magazine committed to elevating the cultural conversation around the intersections of politics and pop culture. I developed one of the first feminist media blogs, Ms. Musings, for Ms. magazine, and later brought another iconic feminist publication, Our Bodies Ourselves, fully into the digital age, expanding access and representation of voices in the text. I’ve also covered technology and education for the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, writing about the opportunities digital media fosters and the divides—influenced by race, gender and class—that persist in this realm.

I’ve taken short breaks in my career to work directly on two political campaigns—first for one my political science professors who ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in New York, and later to organize GOTV efforts in parts of Lee County, Fla., during President Obama’s first presidential race. The Rethinking Debates project, however, is a completely nonpartisan effort. In fact, Civic Hall has enlisted an advisory board of experts, including people from both sides of the political aisle, who will assist with this research.

For too long, political debates have been a primary example of the ways in which substantive issues and the concerns of large segments of the public go unexplored. I’m excited about reimagining this part of the political process and welcome your suggestions and feedback along the way. You can reach me at christine [at] civichall.org or @cmc2.

And if you’re interested in staying up to date on this project, subscribe to our newsletter here. We’ll soon start publishing a bi-weekly round-up of reporting and other coverage related to the Rethinking Debates project.