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The Problem With Today’s Political Forums

Local candidate debates and town halls have devolved into substance-free, celebrity-focused dog-and-pony shows, at a time when we need serious examination of issues. Can’t we do better?

Atlanta Mayors debate.jfif
Atlanta mayoral candidate Kasim Reed speaks during the second Atlanta mayoral forum, July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
It is election season for many local governments. It’s the time when you’ll receive canvassers at your door, tons of political literature in your mailbox, robocalls, text messages and campaign videos sent to your phone, and — worst of all — the time of pretentious and typically boring political forums that too often elevate moderators and panelists above candidates. It might be time that we lay this relic, this onetime incubator of democracy, to rest if we cannot breathe new life into it.

The idea of a political forum, a debate or town hall-style event where candidates come before the public and defend their records or advance their proposals, seems on the surface like grassroots democracy at work. Such forums, the theory goes, create an enlightened public that can make informed decisions about who could best represent them and their interests in elected office. But this is not what political forums are today, if they ever were. They have become platforms for celebrity-type moderators and panelists who often overshadow the candidates.

Political forums as they typically exist today at best provide an opportunity for candidates to present in 30-second soundbites. But is this what governance is really about — using catchy phrases to make headlines? A candidate with substantive experience and who is cerebral and nuanced does not usually fare well in today’s forum environment, because forums usually elevate style over substance, wit over grit, and in the end, are not really about a debate over important issues facing a community.

Political forums have not only proven to be difficult for participants but also for journalists to cover. In Atlanta at a recent forum, the headline in the next day's newspaper highlighted the fact that it was the “largest” forum to date with 160 people attending. One would have thought that reporters covering the event would have questioned the wisdom of holding a live forum at the same time Georgia and the rest of the South were experiencing a spike in the delta variant of the coronavirus. The fact that most forums don’t create much useful information, not to mention news, contributes regrettably to journalists believing they must write about the attendance instead of hot-button issues about which the community cares.

At this same forum, as an example of how sterile and sanitized these gatherings have become, no one asked a candidate under indictment about how he planned to fight for law and order while himself fighting federal fraud charges. And no one asked a former mayor running on a platform of public safety about several high-ranking members of his administration who were convicted of criminal offenses or awaiting trial. Whether these things, and others like them happening across the country, matter in the end will be determined at the ballot box, but how can you not discuss them at a political forum?

Another problem with political forums is that they often feature panelists and candidates who are inexperienced at participating in these kinds of events. Rarely do forum organizers invite to participate high school teachers or college professors, who might know a thing or two about local politics and who often lead class discussions on important contemporary issues. This infatuation with star moderators and panelists is essentially a sign of the lack of confidence forum organizers have in candidates’ being able to attract public attention. And this is a sad indicator of the state of American democracy.

As bad as these things are, the biggest problem with forums today is that they no longer attract significant numbers of actual voters. Many who do attend are often affiliated with the campaigns of candidates. I recall from my days of campaigning in the past and working on recent campaigns that in the time it took a candidate to prep for a forum, drive to it, and stay for a couple hours, she or he could have substantially reached more genuinely undecided voters by calling them on the phone.

Are political forums worth saving? Can they be revived? I suggest we start by creating an atmosphere that encourages public engagement, holds incumbent candidates accountable for their legislative and governing records and, without condescension, challenges candidates who have never held office to better explain their proposals. As it exists today, there is little if any fact-checking that occurs during forums. Candidates can say anything or make outlandish claims that often go unchallenged.

Now is an opportune time as the nation tries to recover from COVID-19 to declare a moratorium on political forums. Instead, sponsors should opt for one-hour interviews with leading candidates so that their records and proposals can be fully interrogated and vetted. Electing future mayors, councilpersons and school board members is serious business and should not devolve into a 90-minute dog-and-pony show with celebrity moderators as the main draw.

At the heart of this discussion is the idea of extending democracy and creating educated voters. I wish political forums were different — that the American public had a gargantuan appetite for understanding political issues that affect them and not just be inclined to vote for recognizable names on the ballot.

The old-fashioned town hall political forums that used to focus attention on the major problems of communities and society, and provide a platform for public officials to offer solutions before a scrutinizing and unforgetful public, have all but been lost. It is time we rediscover the essence of what once made them incubators of democracy and opportunities for inquisitive voters to meet up with public officials and candidates and hold them accountable.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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