So instead of minimizing distractions, says Jacob Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, we ought to pile them on. “Television game shows periodically take advantage of this fact, either imposing difficult time constraints, playing distracting music or images, or requiring contestants to perform physical activities while answering questions,” Gersen wrote in an e-mail. Any schmuck could explain how to pay down the deficit under perfect conditions, in other words—let’s see him do it in a room full of flashing lights and the sound of a dozen people talking through the PA system.
INTERVIEW THEM FOR THE JOB
On some level, the months leading up to Election Day are really just one long, highly public application process. What if the climax of that process wasn’t a series of debates, but rather a nationally televised job interview? Rami Genauer, who spends his days coming up with ways to score fights in mixed martial arts as director of FightMetric, suggests that instead of Jim Lehrer and Candy Crowley, candidates should face a panel of recruiters, and answer the kinds of questions the rest of us have faced when interviewing for a new gig. “This would be a format that is familiar to nearly all Americans, so they could make a truer connection,” Genauer wrote in an e-mail.
One potentially fruitful interview question could take the form of a hypothetical crisis, which the candidates would have to analyze on the spot before explaining how they’d work through it. Another might ask them to explain why their political opponents think what they think about a particular issue, and to locate the flaw in their reasoning. Other questions could be trickier, taking a page from companies like Google and Microsoft, which are known for subjecting their potential employees to brain-teasers and logic puzzles that test not just knowledge and salesmanship, but the ability to think through a new and complicated problem. If a person can’t quickly figure out how many golf balls might fit in a school bus, how are they going to deal with Syria?
MAKE THEM CONVINCE A VOTER
In his book “The Ethics of Voting,” Jason Brennan, a political scientist at Georgetown University, makes the unpalatable-sounding argument that most Americans know so little about the issues that they have a moral obligation not to cast a ballot on Election Day. And debates compound the problem, he says, by pandering precisely to those people who don’t have a firm grasp of how the world works. During last Tuesday’s debate, for instance, Brennan bristled at certain comments the candidates made about trade and the economy. “Probably these guys know better than a lot of what they’re saying, but they’re having a competition to appeal to...the median voter,” he said. “And the median voter has mistaken beliefs about economics.”
To reduce the pressure candidates feel to cater to common misconceptions, Brennan would like to see town-hall style debates radically restructured, so that instead of arguing with each other, the candidates were forced to convince actual voters who disagree with them on specific issues that they’re wrong. The candidate would have to be respectful toward the person’s view, which would show us one set of skills—and would also need to explain their disagreement in a palatable, nonideological, up-from-the-ground way that would be hugely informative to anyone who watched.
DUMB IT DOWN
Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, agrees that many voters aren’t informed enough to parse the nuances of a detailed policy discussion. (One might also argue that those who are informed enough probably won’t make up their minds based on 90 minutes of TV.) Instead of using debates to try to educate voters, though, Hanson suggests we just abandon our high-mindedness and replace the debates with something much easier to understand: reality TV-style contests in which the candidates compete along dimensions everyone would be able to follow. One idea: give both candidates a long shopping list and see which one can buy the items for the least money. Or we could get more ambitious. “I would love to see political candidates participate in a game of ‘Survivor,’” said Swarthmore’s Berger, “because seeing how they handle themselves in physically and emotionally grueling circumstances would give us a fair amount of insight into their character. And seeing how they negotiate alliances and up-close politics would tell us something about their practical political tools.”
LOCK THEM IN A ROOM Continued...