Presidential Debate

Clea Conner: America Needs More and Better Debates

The CEO of Open To Debate wants us to disagree more productively—especially when it comes to presidential debates.


In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, "he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." He was laying out the case for robust, good-faith, and systematic debate as essential to an open society. If you don't test your beliefs by engaging with people who disagree with you, you're more likely to make weak, incomplete, self-serving, or irrelevant arguments, leading to ruinous outcomes in policy matters or acrimonious misunderstandings in social life.

That's where the group Open to Debate comes in. Founded in 2006 as Intelligence Squared U.S., Open to Debate has hosted hundreds of debates with the goal of "restor[ing] critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse." Through a mix of online and in-person events, Open to Debate brings together artists, officials, public intellectuals, scientists, and entrepreneurs from across the ideological spectrum to work through contentious, heated, and seemingly irresolvable issues of the day.

Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward, for instance, was part of a debate that asked, "Is Capitalism a Blessing?" Over the years, I've argued for legalizing all drugs and against Medicare for All, net neutrality, and forgiving student loan debt. I also moderate debates for them, including one in New York about millennials taking place on June 7. Open to Debate invites audience participation, and it airs all its programming on public radio, YouTube, and the group's own website, where it provides voluminous notes and materials, all designed to help audience members reach independent and informed conclusions.

My guest today is Open To Debate's CEO, Clea Conner, who tells me about her group's mission, its name change, and its push to host actual presidential debates rather than "joint press conferences with really rehearsed talking points."

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