One of the most rewarding aspects of my 25-year career overseas working for democracy organizations was organizing candidate debates. Particularly in countries where it had never been done. In 2013, we pulled off Cambodia’s first televised debate that included the participation of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) on a stage alongside the opposition. This was (and is) unheard of in the Cambodian political context where opposition leaders are more likely to be put in jail than given a microphone on mainstream media.
The negotiation process with the government was painstaking, and I spent hours with the CPP party chair convincing him that a debate was advantageous. I tried every argument — the public should see their options and make an informed choice; it was an opportunity to showcase the CPP’s achievements; it gave space to counter opposition claims against them; it signals Cambodia’s democratic credentials.
What ultimately worked? It looks weak to refuse a debate; it signals fear of losing and insecurity about your arguments.
Last week, the Republic National Committee voted to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and will require candidates to pledge they will not participate. My immediate thought was, what are they afraid of? Then a more discouraging realization seeped in — this is another sign the U.S. is moving backwards. The U.S. has supported candidate debates through our foreign aid as an important benchmark in democracy. Debates signal maturity, transparency, and competition. Sparring over policy differences and making a case to voters are signs of democratic advancement. And now the U.S. itself may not be able to meet that challenge.
Everywhere I’ve worked, a key sticking point in debate organization is moderation. In weak and new democracies, the hangover of distrust is strong. There is no history of referees — neutral arbiters calling balls and strikes. One of the more difficult tasks for countries transitioning to democracy is building out independent bodies, whether an election management body, auditor general, anti-corruption commission, or ombudsperson. Media proves the most difficult, with journalists and outlets labeled partisan. Thus, the question of who will moderate a debate is fraught. I have had parties refuse to participate, rejecting every proposed moderator and insisting they would only join if they alone could choose. In Cambodia, finding a neutral moderator was difficult, but we managed to identify someone all parties could live with.
One of the RNC’s complaints about debates is unfair and biased moderation selected by the CPD. The committee argues that moderation in 2020 gave Joe Biden an advantage. The CPD is actually nonpartisan, with a board of former Republican and Democratic leaders. Furthermore, selected moderators have included a diverse array of journalists, including from conservative-leaning outlet Fox News, such as Chris Wallace. No matter, as Donald Trump declared them all “against him” or “terrible and unfair.” As in the newer democracies where the U.S. provides aid, it appears we also are too polarized to agree upon neutral referees, and immaturely insistent that only our choices are the fair ones.
Agreeing on debate rules is also a challenge. My experience has shown that candidates only like the rules applied to their opponent. In Thailand once, an incumbent mayor told me with a straight face that he should have more time to speak than his opponent because he had “more to say.” I’ve had multiple candidates argue that they should go last and reject the idea of a coin toss. In the country Georgia, the ruling party once made a list of specific people in the opposition they refused to debate at all, arguing that these politicians were too aggressive (though in private acknowledging that certain opposition candidates were simply “too good”). Not once in my experience, though, has a candidate failed to comply with time limits during a debate, as we have seen recently in the U.S. In 25 years, there was never a need for the moderator to say more than once “your time is up” or to switch off the microphone.
Like elsewhere, the RNC is also complaining about debate rules, and the behavior they try to enforce. In 2020, the Trump campaign was furious that the commission determined that mics would be controlled in future debates to keep order because in the previous debate Trump refused to follow the time limits, constantly interrupted, and ignored the moderator. The Trump campaign also wanted control over the topics for debate, particularly when learning questioning would focus on his COVID response, though the campaigns had already agreed the issues for debate would be up to the moderators. The campaign also complained about live fact-checking by the moderator, accusing the commission of being “stacked with Trump Haters and Never Trumpers.” Trump said the quiet part out loud: “As President, the debates are up to me… avoiding the nasty politics of this very biased Commission.” As I’ve experienced elsewhere, the Trump campaign had an inconsistent relationship with rules (he certainly wanted Biden’s speaking time limited), depending on to whom it applied, and a sense of entitlement.
The RNC should consider carefully the company they are in — following the path of Putin, Orban, Mugabe, and other authoritarians. Refusing to debate is a trait of strongmen and dictators, not confident democrats. In a free society, as I have told parties everywhere, opting out of debates is not a good look.
If the U.S. is unable to hold a presidential debate, it speaks volumes about the underlying health of our democracy. Neutrality exists nowhere. We cannot agree on rules, acceptable behavior, or even facts. Our chosen leaders are not mature enough to engage in civil discourse about policy and allow their opponents to finish a sentence. Few Americans will miss our presidential debates. The 2020 debates did not really inform anyone and disgusted people in the process, revealing nothing but rancor. We have already solidified our views, fallen into our tribes, and are unlikely to be persuaded by facts, argument, or reason.
It is disheartening that Cambodia in 2013 managed what we cannot today. They were able to agree on debates, choose a moderator, follow the rules, and keep decorum. This latest threat to debates indicates that a contest of ideas on a level playing field, allowing voters to hear differing policy agendas, may be too elusive a goal for us today. We need to address the deeper democratic illness this reveals if we cannot meet the standard to which we hold others.
Laura L. Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Prior to joining ASD, she worked for 25 years in Asia and the former Soviet Union for democracy-promotion organizations.