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Debate expert calls for new rules to save democratic traditions

Friday, October 02, 2020

LAWRENCE – President Donald Trump's diagnosis with the COVID-19 infection, announced overnight, has thrown further debates with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden into question. But one conducted remotely via Zoom or a similar method could actually help implement University of Kansas debate expert Robert Rowland’s suggestions for improvement.

In the wake of Trump’s interruptions during the first debate, which Rowland called “the worst thing I've ever seen in American politics,” the KU professor of communication studies recommends that organizers of any remaining debates confine each candidate to a soundproof room and otherwise try to prevent them from interrupting their rival or the moderator.

Such measures are necessary, Rowland said, if the public is to make an educated choice between the two candidates and if the democratic principle of free and open debate that undergirds the Constitution is to be preserved.

Rowland is a former college debate champion, debate judge and author of many scholarly works on presidential rhetoric. His book on Trump’s populist, nationalist rhetoric comes out next year from University of Kansas Press. He can discuss whether and how further debates should be “restructured,” as the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would do in the wake of the Sept. 29 debacle.

“The idea of reasoned exchange of ideas is really the core underlying principle of American democracy,” Rowland said. “President Trump's constant interruptions and failure to cite evidence show that either he doesn't believe in it or cannot enact it, or both.”

Therefore, Rowland said, he suggests the following measures for any subsequent debates:

“I really think this is a perfect time, because of COVID, that they should speak — if they can be on the same stage — from separate areas with the microphone off when the other candidate is speaking, and with some kind of soundproofing in between,” Rowland said.

Even a town hall-style debate, such as the one currently scheduled for Oct. 15, could be adapted in this way, Rowland said.

“They need to have audience participation, but you don't need to have them be able to go up directly to someone,” he said. “Think of how many times on a radio call-in show someone called in and made some poignant point.

“And if you do that, you can get a fixed order of speeches, a running clock with limited time for each candidate, with the mic off when the other candidate is trying to speak and the incentive that if they still try to shout, that time gets added on to the opposing candidate. All of these things would incentivize creating a real debate.”

“Some might say, ‘You're favoring decorum over combat,’ but that's what democracies depend upon — that we listen to the other side and then we decide — and that depends on a certain level of decorum.”

To interview Rowland about his proposals for improving presidential debates, contact Rick Hellman, KU News Service public affairs officer, at 913-620-8786 or rick_hellman@ku.edu.