An instant online debate for everybody ("Youtube" debate)

In continuation of my series on fixing politics I would like to address the issue of debates. Not just presidential debates, but all levels.

The big debates are a strange animal. You need to get the candidates to agree to come, and so a big negotiation takes place which inherently waters down the debate. Only the big 2 candidates appear in Presidential debates, usually, and they put in rules that stop the candidates form actually actively debating one another. Most debates outside the big ones get little attention, and they are a lot of work.

I propose the creation, on an online video site -- Youtube is an obvious choice but it need not be there -- of a suite of tools to allow the creation of a special online video debate. Anybody, in any race, could create a debate using these tools, and do it easily.

To run a debate, some group with some reputation -- press, or even election officials, would use the system to create a new debate. They would then gather some initial questions, and invite candidates -- usually all candidates in the race, there being no reason to exclude anybody (as you'll see below.) The initial questions could be in video, coming from press or voters as desired.

The first round of questions would be released to the candidates. They would then be able to record video answers to those questions, in addition to opening statements. They could record answers of any length, or even record answers of multiple lengths, or answers with logical stopping points marked at different lengths. They could also write written answers or record just audio, which is much less work.

After this, candidates could look at what the other candidates said, and then record responses, again in varying lengths if they like. They could then record responses to the responses, and so on. They could record a response to a specific candidate's statements, or a response applying to more than one, as they wish.

It could also be enabled that candidates could ask questions of other candidates, and those candidates could elect to answer or not answer. They could also agree in advance that they will trade answers, ie. "I will answer one of yours if you will answer one of mine."

This process would create a series of videos, and we then get to the next part of the tool, which would allow the voter to program what sort of debate they want.

For example, a voter could say:

  • I want a debate between the Republican and Democrat, initial answers limited to around 2 minutes, follow-ups to one minute, up to 2 each.
  • I want a debate between the Republican, Democrat and Libertarian, with follow-ups and videos until I hit "next"
  • I want a debate between all candidates on Climate Change (or any other issue that's been put in the debate)
  • I want a debate on foreign policy among the top candidates as ranked by feedback scores/Greenpeace/etc.

The voter could have exactly the debate they wanted, and candidates could go back and forth rebutting one another as long as they wanted. Candidates would be able to get statistics on the length of answers that voters are looking for, and know how long a response to give. Typically they would do one short and one long, but they could also make a long response that is structured so it can be stopped reasonably at several different points when the voter gets bored.

Sure, the Republican might decide not to respond to the Green Party candidate's view on Climate Change. If the viewer asked for a Republican-Green debate, the system would just say "the candidate offered no response." Voters who wanted could even accept seeing material from other voters.

Candidates would duplicate themselves in answers, so software would convert the answers to text (or campaigns would provide the captions) and the system could automatically remove things you've seen, quickly popping up the text for a few seconds. If desired, campaign workers could spend a fair bit of time tuning just what to show based on the history of the viewer's watching.

For the Presidential debates, building a well crafted set of videos would take time, but probably less time than the immense prep and rehearsal they do for those debates. On the other hand, they get to do multiple takes, so they don't need to rehearse, just say it until it feels right. It does mean you don't get to see the candidate under pressure -- there is no Rick Perry saying he will close 3 agencies and only being able to name 2. As such it may not substitute fully for that, but it would also allow a low-effort debate at every level of contest, and bring the candidates in front of more voters.


I've been thinking very similarly for a while, and especially after YouTube's tie-ins with previous debates that didn't use the medium very appropriately.

The traditional debates are a kabuki-choreographed mess, with their negotiated formats and stuffy moderators and artificial limits, preventing almost anything of substance from being discussed.

I do think a firm set of time limits, and expected presentation format of replies-chained-to-each-other, would be important to make the process understandable to candidates and voters – especially at first. Viewers and candidates need to know the boundaries of the engagement, even if they are free to offer unbounded supporting material elsewhere.

A keep-it-simple first MVP could be roughly the "Lincoln-Douglas" one-on-one debate format, as practiced in competitive high-school/college debates. That is: a series of fixed, balanced time slots alternating between the candidates, totaling 35-45 minutes. (Direct live cross-examination would be out, given the intentional production lags, but knowing the presentation-order to voters, candidates could challenge opponents with pointed questions, then follow-up in their next video about how the question was dodged. Supporting video/audio clips and graphics/animation would be welcome.) In this form, I believe it'd be best to only release any when the full set of videos is available. Then, they can be binge-watched as a cohesive discussion - rather than picked-apart and micro-adjusted with regard to the daily campaign news scraps.

Of course that only works for 2 candidates – but when there's more, maybe round-robin?

After some comfort with the general idea, other less-linear 'hypertextual' presentations like you suggest could be introduced. Still, the value of a 'debate' is the shared-context-narrative of challenge-response, multiple levels deep. Adding too many forking paths or remix options would dilute that.

Another possibility would be to give candidates a total time-budget as with a chess clock, leaving them free to set their own sizing/pace of individual exchanges.

Or run it as a lengthy 'tennis-volley', each day with one new video from alternating campaigns, each expected to respond to the preceding series and comment on new developments.

Yes, I have seen some merit in the time limits, including the chess clock idea. One primary goal is you sort of want to know when the back and forth is finished, so you may have to assign who gets the last word. That can be based on who got the first word, or a time clock.

If each candidate's response to a question or issue is independent, then the first part isn't really a debate, it's a position statement, which allows us to ask to see the opening salvos for all candidates we like. If instead you want to let one candidate answer "first" and then the next thing is an opponent's response, it does not scale out beyond a few candidates very well, and I want it to scale to both the 6 candidate primary debates and the multi-candidate final election debates, allowing the minor candidates to have a say if the voters select to hear from them.

Sadly, major candidates will refuse to respond to minor candidates, and certainly would not like finding that the silly walks candidate was going to be first to answer the question and they were expected to respond.

This online canned debate concept appears beneficial at first glance but is missing some desirable components. It would be good to know who is involved in writing the texts to be recorded by the candidates and perhaps even more desirable to know which existing clips have been seen by the actual candidates prior to preparation of responses.

Existing live debates demonstrate that candidates themselves are hearing the opponents' arguments although they do not require candidates to write the content of rebuttals or reveal who has written them. But unusual challenges can still require immediate and unprepared responses. That dynamic would sadly be lost in this design and thus it is a dream for campaign strategists.

Of course strategists who negotiate rules for live debates do their best to avoid the need for any last minute thinking by candidates. IMHO an improvement would be to counteract these strategists with rules and some of this is happening.

Treating elections as a game entirely to be played by strategists is to me a dark and sinister vision ( and a mostly applicable one ) that leads to responsible complaints that both parties are acting alike and individual voters decisions have become insignificant.

As Brad points out, this sorry impression matches the understanding of the strategists who will focus on very small populations. Strategists including Brad have recognized that relatively few persons' opinions actually matter.

Anyone can see these categories of voters who matter are subject to efficient focused manipulation. Meanwhile all voters are also subject to manipulation by strategists who explain that most of their opinions do not matter and even ought not matter when the incumbent is apparently extra awful.

That perspective is one that leads would-be voters, regardless of intelligence or good intentions to stop caring about and even avoid voting - and that matches my overall personal reaction to several of Brad's fix-the-vote scenarios.

I would rather fix the system that leads to these highly optimized non-democratic strategies.

Perhaps some Trump voters were hoping to "drain the swamp" of this kind of campaign strategy. That would have been my single reason to vote for him. But there were so many reasons not to, many of which were revealed only after the election.

My favorite improve-the-election rule is to require publication of short lists for cabinet positions in campaign materials.

My next favorite is to allow voting for more than one candidate (approval voting) particularly in primaries.

Yes, there are clearly things that would be missing from live debate in this approach. As you point out, the answers in live debates are often rehearsed and pre-written, but not all of them.

But as you also point out, the live debates have many flaws, but the key flaws addressed here are the lack of need to exclude non-major candidates in advance, and the ability to allow more nuanced and detailed answers when desired.

BTW, when I wrote about voters who do not matter, I am not endorsing that. Actually, I am condemning it, but it is a reality of the system in the USA (and many other places, actually, including my homeland.)

And you will note that things like approval voting are also very high on my list, as high as you place it. I've written that in other posts, particularly because it does not require a national change -- individual states could do approval voting in their state elections and the Presidential election too.

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