How to Build a Better Debate

Over a staff lunch on Tuesday, Team ABQ was debriefing the presidential debate when our Director of Assessment, Pablo Rangel, told us, “I actually started taking notes. I wrote down all the questions, their responses, and the questions I thought they could have asked.”

Pablo confessed he did this to keep himself from throwing something at the television. But that got us thinking about the questions and how they were crafted, and what the shape of the questions might teach us.

Granted that in a presidential debate, the candidates are not going to directly answer most of the questions. They’re going to talk about whatever they want to talk about and send whatever messages they intend to send to the demographics they want to reach. But the questions also have power. Here, for instance, is how moderator Lester Holt formed his question about race relations:

“The share of Americans who say race relations are bad in this country is the highest it’s been in decades, much of it amplified by shootings of African-Americans by police, as we’ve seen recently in Charlotte and Tulsa. Race has been a big issue in this campaign, and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?”

Pablo pointed out that this question suggests that race as a category is built on a binary: black and white. No mention of Latinos, East Asians, South Asians, Native Americans, Arabs, not to mention the various racial and ethnic mixtures that have transformed the American racial landscape. In this framing, race becomes closely twinned with police shootings and a sense of division that has always been at the heart of American society. Holt didn’t choose to try to complicate the idea of race or citizen-police relationships—rather, he posed the question in very stark terms, seemingly designed for maximum fissile energy.

Such is often the nature of Hard Questions, which formed the entirety of Holt’s five actual questions of the debate. Most were of the “what would you do about” variety. One was a “why do you think you’re better at this” question. But none of them were Big Questions. They were, instead, questions designed to enable the candidates to jockey for power and expertise (or feigned expertise), and to score points.

As I frequently talk about on the campuses I visit, Hard Questions aren’t bad—they’re quite important. Questions that demand knowledge and expertise are the ones on which we make decisions. And the President should be someone who has sufficient knowledge and expertise to answer Hard Questions and to earn our trust.

At the same time, these debates have become a missed opportunity. More people watched the debate on Monday night than watched anything else this year besides the Super Bowl. And while the candidates’ answers are pretty predictable (and beyond the control of the moderator) the questions themselves are an act of cultural leadership. So I wonder what would happen if a debate moderator used one of the questions in our Civics Booklets, for instance something like this:

“Secretary Clinton, I’d like to explore a question that matters to all of us as human beings: What do we choose to ignore? (Thanks to my friends at Ask Big Questions for this one.) Have you ever chose to notice something you had previously ignored? What happened? How do we stop ignoring things that would be helpful for us to see? Are there times when it’s good or useful to ignore something? Same to you, Mr. Trump.”

I wonder where it would go. My guess is they’d pretty quickly turn it into a statement about how they chose to stop ignoring the bad state of things in America, that they have to ignore the personal attacks that come at them, and then turn it into an argument for why they’re the better candidate for President. 

But let’s forget the answer for a second and just focus on the question. What would happen if the moderator asked a question like this? What would viewers at home think and talk about? My guess is we might actually think about that question ourselves, and think about what we choose to ignore—everything from the laundry that needs to get put away, to the undocumented immigrants we interact with, to the complex realities of race in America, to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria. We would recognize that this is a question that isn’t just for the President, but for all of us. We would sense, for a moment, that there were 80 million other Americans sharing a question with us. If we only did that, it would be enough.

So if someone out there knows Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, or Chris Wallace and wants to put an Ask Big Questions civics booklet in their hands, call me. Bigger questions can change the world. We just need one of these guys to ask them.