Citizen Participation in Presidential Debates Kicked to the Curb This Election

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide blog.

On October 22, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald summed up the dismal state of the foreign policy debate perfectly:

That was just a wretched debate, with almost no redeeming qualities. It was substance-free, boring, and suffuse with empty platitudes. The vast majority of the most consequential foreign policy matters (along with the world’s nations) were completely ignored in lieu of their same repetitive slogans on the economy.

In previous years, the debates welcomed questions from citizens. In 2008, more than 7 million Democrats and Republicans engaged with the YouTube debates. These debates allowed for citizens to not only send in video questions, but to also post written responses for discussion and for use on the CNN program. This year, citizen input was kicked to the curb, though not for a lack of trying. Greenwald notes:

Numerous foreign policy analysts, commentators and journalists published lists of foreign policy questions they wanted to hear asked and answered at this debate. Almost none was raised. In sum, it was a perfect microcosm of America’s political culture.

One such group, our student-led division, STAND, hand delivered 777 letters to debate moderator Bob Schieffer requesting that he ask the candidates “How will you strengthen the United States’ atrocity prevention efforts as president?”

And Act for Sudan ran a strong campaign to “ask the candidates how they propose to revamp U.S. policy on Sudan to ensure that the slaughter of innocent civilians does not continue on our watch and with tacit U.S. support?”

Instead, the candidates sparred over anticipated questions about our relationship with Israel and the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, our military capabilities, and our relationship with China. The larger question facing our nation about the U.S. role in the world and how the candidates themselves would define what is in the national security interest of the United States was almost completely ignored.

Writing for OpenDemocracy, Ruth Rosen called out Schieffer and the candidates for this failure:

What would a real national security look like? This debate never really took place. For starters, we would protect human rights and civil liberties, here and abroad. National security should be about strengthening our democracy and creating an example that billions of people around the world would like to emulate.

These are core components of what our foreign policy should look like. However we need more of an outward look – a debate about real national security should extend beyond our own borders and ask what impact our polices are having across the globe.

What we heard from both candidates was a narrow view of what is in the direct interest of the United States. That view excludes the voices of marginalized people under attack in places like Darfur, Blue Nile, and Abeyei in Sudan and South Sudan or those in places in the DR Congo or Burma. The list unfortunately goes on.

Ultimately, the fallout from this narrower vision lands on us – the citizens standing with those at greatest risk around the world. After hearing the debate, those of us who have stood for people in Darfur, in Syria, in DR Congo, and anywhere atrocities are happening know our voice is still needed. Those of us calling for greater prevention efforts, like the Atrocities Prevention Board, must redouble our efforts. And as we see a narrowing interest in the world from the candidates, we know we have a lot of work ahead of us.

Erik Leaver is the Director of Digital Strategy for United to End Genocide. He previously served as Communications Manager at the Institute for Policy Studies.