Debates 2020

Social Distancing Dramatically Improved the Democratic Debate

Coronavirus fears prompted organizers to drop the live audience, which was just as well.


In an effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19, organizers of Sunday night's Democratic debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) decided to forego a live audience.

As it turns out, this was a massive improvement. There should never be a live audience again.

Without the incessant interruptions of audience members cheering for a scripted laugh line or rewarding a moment of moral grandstanding, the candidates—it helps that there are only two of them now—actually had an opportunity to engage in a real dialogue about the issues. To take just one example, there was ample time for Sanders to scrutinize Biden's un-progressive senatorial voting record (on the Defense of Marriage Act, the Iraq War, and other issues) in great detail.

"We have time to talk about this," Sanders noted, with some surprise, while pressing Biden on a point about environmental sustainability.

Coronavirus fears have prompted plenty of emergency revisions to policies that ought never to have existed in the first place. The Travel Security Administration, for instance, recently suspended its arbitrary size limit regarding carry-on hand sanitizers: a policy that provides security theater, not actual safety, to airline passengers. Meanwhile, San Antonio has stopped detaining people for minor offenses, in an effort to keep coronavirus out of the jails. "Why were they doing it in the first place?" asks Slate's Dan Kois.

Similarly, social distancing has inadvertently shown us that indulging an audience's appetite for snark and soundbites was never necessary. Let's keep the debates audience-free, even after the coronavirus epidemic is stopped (the State of the Union, too).