Editorial: Hold your applause during debates and listen to the dialogue

Editorial Board

One hallmark of Newt Gingrich’s campaign for president has been his contempt for the scrutiny his methods of campaigning and personal past has received from media outlets. After Monday night’s NBC debate, the Gingrich-press antagonism seems stronger than ever.

A debate is not the place to allow aspects of campaign rallies. Brian Williams, who moderated Monday’s NBC debate, right away admonished audience members against applause. Civic participation and attendance at meetings is a cornerstone of any republic and, if it were not for men who took the time to educate themselves in political issues and act on their opinions, our country would not exist.

In response to instructions from the debate’s moderators to audience members that they pipe down and allow the issues as articulated by the candidates to take center stage, Gingrich protested that muzzling the crowd hurt free speech. To date, playing off the crowd has been standard practice by the debating candidates. Their applause (or refusal to applaud) has spurred aggressive attacks. Standing ovations make the debates seem more like speaker-audience interaction than candidates jostling with one another to differentiate themselves.

There is a time and place for crowd participation. A debate is not it. We hold debates for our candidates so we can decide which candidate is best compared to his or her rivals. Campaign debates do not exist so that we can partake in political theater and slake our thirst for politi-tainment.

Debates are carefully structured, especially this season, around certain important issues. Allowing crowds to alter that structure is distracting if not downright dangerous. Direct democracy imperils any representative system, and the authors of our republican government dreaded the prospect of populism and demagoguery.

Republicans often level charges of populism and demagoguery against President Obama, but Gingrich is the worst offender. Typically Gingrich, he asserted that Williams instructed the crowd to keep quiet because of media fears that the crowd would side with the candidates instead of the media.

This is not a free speech issue. The audience of a debate do not attend so they can voice their support for one of the participants or cheer him or her on. Audience members attend so they can educate themselves about which candidate is best for the job.

Politicians need to be prepared to work with one another once they win office. Campaign season is not every year, year-round. The writers of the Constitution rejected annual elections so that elements of democracy would not gain control; regular and frequent elections keep politicians accountable, but limiting the amount of popular participation leaves them free to do their job.