Political Scientist Ben Berger on How to Improve Presidential Debates

Ben Berger at Chester poll on Election Day 2008.
Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger

The Boston Globe: How to Improve the Debates

Until about three weeks ago, most Americans had never seen Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in a room together. That's what made the prospect of their debates so exciting: After months of posturing, spinning, and sniping from afar, the two rivals would finally go toe-to-toe, stepping into the ring without a protective shield of advisers. What actually happened when the candidates met, of course, was more posturing, spinning, and sniping, which is more or less how it goes every election year. ...

Today we still fall back on the same old format: two people in a room, taking turns answering questions and hardly ever addressing each other directly. It's hard to imagine this is the best we can come up with. The debates are - or should be - crucial to our democracy, virtually the only time the candidates appear unscripted before the American people. If we were to design them with only the voters in mind, as opposed to bowing to the demands of campaign officials seeking to protect their candidates from spontaneity, what could we do differently? Ideas asked experts in a variety of fields - from political science to psychology to mixed martial arts - to pretend they were in charge of staging the next confrontation between Romney and Obama, and asked them to imagine what a genuinely useful American presidential showdown might look like....

INTERRUPT THEM

The fact-checking that does happen now - with news outlets chewing over everything the candidates say - doesn't have the same effect as live interruptions would, according to Swarthmore College political scientist Benjamin Berger, author of the book "Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement." The way debates are set up now, Berger points out, candidates don't really have to worry about the consequences of lying, because the emotional points they score in the moment are unlikely to be erased even if some voters find out later they stretched the truth. If candidates are called out on the spot, that process might be disrupted. "There's a strong emotion people have of not liking to be played for fools," Berger said.

DUMB IT DOWN

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."
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Berger, director of Swarthmore's "Engaging Democracy Project," will join three Swarthmore colleagues for a conversation focused on the "Moral Differences between Liberals and Conservatives" on Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. in the Scheuer Room. The talk is the second in a series of four sympopsia on The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, which have been made possible with funding and administrative support from the Swarthmore College Institute for the Liberal Arts. Berger will also provide live coverage of Election Night on Philadelphia's NPR affiliate station WHYY from 7 p.m. until midnight.