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What American Voters Can Learn From the Brits

For too long American politicians have gotten off easy, not just from the press but from the voters as well. Because of our acquiescence, we have let the lunatics take over the asylum. The British model demonstrates that things don't have to be that way.
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As I sat in the auditorium for the last big set piece of the 2015 British election--a televised town hall Q&A featuring the current prime minister and his two leading challengers--I found myself wishing that our American campaigns included equivalent opportunities for sharp, skeptical questioning by informed citizens. Thanks to an audience in Leeds that displayed a zero tolerance policy for spin, the three candidates--David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg--all found themselves on the hot seat. And appropriately so.

As voters, we too easily forget that politicians are our employees; it is up to us to hold them accountable and keep them in line. The audience in Leeds took seriously their mission to stand in for the British electorate, grilling each of the party leaders in a tone that felt very much like the boss conducting scathing performance reviews of staffers in need of a course correction. They challenged the talking points, rejected the obfuscations and approached their task unintimidated and uncowed. Because the program was structured as back-to-back individual interviews, the Leeds event did not really qualify as a debate. Ultimately that did not matter--the people in the audience got the job done, candidate by candidate.

Americans have a great deal of experience with televised town halls as fixtures of political campaigns. In each electoral cycle since 1992, voters have posed questions to the party nominees in presidential debates, often with memorable results: Bill Clinton oozing empathy, George H.W. Bush glancing down at his watch, Al Gore invading George W. Bush's space, John McCain wandering aimlessly around the stage (famously parodied by Saturday Night Live). In some cases presidential debate audiences have raised issues that the press has neglected. In others--the Obama-Romney town hall of 2012, most notably--citizen-questioners have figured only tangentially.

Town hall campaign events in the U.S. suffer from rules that are far too rigid and far too concerned with protecting candidates from awkward moments. With each election cycle, the campaigns contrive new restrictions on how town hall audiences are selected, which types of voters get invited to participate, and how they pose their questions. The goal is to minimize spontaneity and provide the candidates with as much of a security blanket as is possible in the innately unstable milieu of live television.

Which brings us back to Britain. The event with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg was produced as a special edition of a long-running current affairs program on BBC One called Question Time, whose hallmark is its unscripted liveliness. Although some questions from the Leeds audience were pre-screened in order to assure a diversity of topics, the exchange was basically free-flowing and unpredictable. Moderator David Dimbleby called on audience members who raised their hands, not knowing what they might have to say. At various points the folks at Leeds Town Hall did not wait to be recognized, leaping in to make their voices heard from the stands. This atmosphere of openness required that the politicians be responsive; running out the clock with stump speeches and packaged sound bites was unacceptable.

To some extent the overall culture of British media and politics helps explain the audience's willingness to confront the candidates, and the candidates' willingness to play along. To American eyes, the political press in the U.K. is much more adversarial in its dealings with the men and women who run for office. British reporters do not hesitate to call bullshit when they see it--and they see plenty of it. By contrast, political journalists in the U.S. operate within a tradition that press critics have described as a "culture of access": coverage that is overly deferential by reporters who take pains not to alienate their sources. When journalists treat politicians with kid gloves, as is too often the case in America, voters will likely follow suit.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, what I observed in Leeds tells me that we in the U.S. have a long way to go in creating a televised forum between citizens and candidates that emphasizes accountability. For too long American politicians have gotten off easy, not just from the press but from the voters as well. Because of our acquiescence, we have let the lunatics take over the asylum. The British model--particularly this Question Time audience in Leeds--demonstrates that things don't have to be that way.