To win elections, presidential candidates make promises. Sometimes they keep them; often, they don’t. The reasons for this are as simple as they are sobering: The potential gains from big promises are high, while the cost of not keeping them is low. Once in office, a candidate can shape the news agenda by spinning any story, or simply evading questions about yesteryear’s campaign slogans. It’s easy to be cynical about this seemingly intractable problem, which plagues established and emerging democracies alike.
But we must not accept the consequences.
After decades of broken election promises, the American public’s trust has reached an all-time low. According to a recent Pew Center poll, only 17 percent of Americans express trust in government, down from three-quarters in 1958. Democratic accountability has never been more important, yet we get farther away from that ideal with every election cycle.
I am an advocate for debates across the Arab world and in emerging democracies everywhere. In the fall of 2019, after five years of campaigning, my initiative organized Tunisia’s first-ever televised presidential and parliamentary election debates. We experimented with a simple idea: We included 99 seconds at the end of each broadcast asking candidates to outline their key electoral promises. Then we surprised them and asked for a show of hands: “If elected, would you come back for a televised event to review the promises you just made to voters?”
Every candidate in our presidential and parliamentary debates agreed. It would have been too humiliating to refuse.
The symbolism of the moment was not lost on Tunisians, who tuned in in the millions. Tunisia is the country where demonstrators sparked the Arab Spring a decade ago when the Middle East cried out for democracy. Tunisia — the only country to successfully democratize after the Arab Spring — offers guarantees for press freedom, a vibrant civil society and welcoming government institutions eager to make democracy work. In this young democracy — the only one in the region — widespread distrust of politicians and cynicism is perhaps the biggest threat to a democratic future.
President Kais Saied did return on his 99th day in office to defend his unfortunately vague promises. So did the leaders of all elected parliamentary blocs. We invited constituents who voted for them to a town hall-style program to hold them accountable.
Could such forums take place in the United States?
In late 2019, I posed this question to Janet Brown, executive director of the U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates, when I hosted her at Yale Law School to discuss the 2020 American debates. She welcomed the idea but pointed out — correctly — that the CPD mission does not allow for post-election programs of this kind.
But there’s nothing to stop American civil society and media from organizing such a forum.
In fact, perhaps like no other president in recent memory, President Biden has himself embraced the 100-day standard, a tradition that President Franklin D. Roosevelt established when he took office in 1933. Whether on the environment, COVID-19, the economy and unemployment, international relations, immigration, race, gender or other social issues, the President’s campaign platform and his speeches declared time and again what he seeks to achieve in his first 100 days.
The televised forum I propose here would serve as an opportunity for the American public to take stock of what has been accomplished by the White House, and for the president to explain his decisions. Unlike in a State of the Union address, the presence of a journalist, leading the conversation and asking follow-up questions, would guarantee that citizens get answers to their most pressing concerns. Pandemic permitting — his 100th day in office is April 30th, 2021 — selected citizens could be invited to interact directly with President Biden as part of the program.
It is sometimes said that presidential debates are a nation’s most important job interview. Let’s make the 100-day mark the date of the first job appraisal. Politicians know we can’t just fire them in the middle of a term if they’re floundering — but we can increase the cost of reneging on the promises that get them elected.
Democracy isn’t just an American affair; it’s a global quest. But as the very idea is under threat around the world, emerging democracies look to the United States, the world’s longest-standing democracy, as an example. If a president avoids accountability, the corrosive effect is felt way beyond the country’s borders. On the other hand, if the United States embraces the kind of innovation proposed here, it may well inspire other countries to follow suit, just as it did when the country led the way in 1960 with the world’s first-ever televised presidential debates.
BELABBES BENKREDDA is Yale Law School’s Peter and Patricia Gruber Fellow in Global Justice; and the founder of the Munathara Initiative, an Arab debate forum. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.