Opinion of the Staff: Political Debates Must Aim for Civility

Students Express Disappointment in the Conduct of the Nominees


Graphic by Ellie O'Sullivan

On September 29, the first presidential debate for the 2020 presidential election was held in Cleveland, Ohio, broadcast on all national news television networks. Moderator Chris Wallace asked Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate questions pertaining to many pressing issues facing the nation: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the supreme court nomination, and the present state of the economy. Each candidate received two minutes to state their answers followed by an open-floor discussion. Theoretically the debate is usually meant to sway undecided voters, issues fell to the wayside as the participants interrupted one another refusing to follow the rules they had each agreed to in advance. This lack of civility is emblematic of a society that is too rude to be open-minded and too stubborn to listen.

Why this struggle with civil discourse — the ability to state positions in a non-combative, logical way? Is it possible that it no longer matters? Danielle Allen of  the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University said, “Democracy depends on language. Language is the instrument of free self-government. So, the quality of our language matters immensely.”

The student-body of PMHS seems to agree overwhelmingly with her. They were collectively asked their opinions about the debate, and there were not many positive things said. Many students found the debate to be hard to watch as the candidates made it extremely difficult to get real answers to the important questions from Chris Wallace. Several students were asked their opinions on the debate, most of whom said it did not go well.

According to freshman Soroush Rassi, “I feel that the way we debate issues should be a respectful practice in which we explain why we disagree with someone else’s views while still respecting that they can have those views, while possibly trying to make them see our side of the story. I am saddened that those we are supposed to look up to seem to find the prospect of insult more important than the prospect of constructive discussion about issues in our society.”

Trump was seen frequently interrupting Biden while also making accusations about Biden’s son and ignoring all the rules of a presidential debate, including going over his allotted time. A highlight of the debate for students was when Trump was asked whether or not he would condemn white supremacy, and failed to completely do so.

The debate lacked a great deal of integrity. Candidates were mainly focused on making swipes at each other rather than answering the questions. Students agreed that they came out more confused than they were before watching the debate. Perhaps this is because debate has ceased to be a means of persuading an audience, as much as to make one’s opponent seem ridiculous.

Sophomore Amina Pucci said, “Instead of focusing on the moderator’s questions, the candidates would place blame on each other instead of demonstrating to viewers how they were going to fix the problems in the world. During this debate, there was a lot of name-calling and placing the blame and not many plans of action.”

This isn’t surprising to Pete Peterson, Dean of Pepperdine University School of Public Policy. Peterson said, “The importance of deliberation and persuasion in settling disagreements and coming to common agreement on important policy issues have always been a part of the American system of governance. And what we have seen over the last few years and exemplified on the debate stage was not just what happened in a particular debate, but really did illustrate a broken political culture.”

This makes sense to senior Nevan Malwana. Nevan said, “Unfortunately, it seems that the days of discussing policy and directly addressing voters on how issues will be handled are gone and have been replaced with rhetoric that focuses on sensationalism and dominating the other candidate. Overall, I think yesterday’s debate left voters just as frustrated with their choices as before,” Malwana said. His statement is similar to other students voicing their concerns for the lack of important matters being addressed thoroughly by the two presidential candidates.

More than one week later on October 7, a vice presidential debate, the second of three debates, was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. The democratic candidate, Kamala Harris went head-to-head with the current vice president, Mike Pence. The general consensus upon the vice presidential debate was that it overall went more smoothly compared to its predecessor. Many, however, say that it did not do much to change the people’s general opinions for the election. In contrast to the disastrous presidential debate, this debate successfully covered important issues and topics that both the Biden and Trump campaign would prepare to handle in the upcoming presidential term. A key takeaway was that although Harris and Pence did talk about pressing issues relating to the election, they did not necessarily respond to the moderator, Susan Page’s, questions. It was announced on October 9 that the third presidential debate between Biden and Trump was canceled due to safety concerns caused by COVID-19.

During these already anxious times, the debates certainly did not ease the stress of the American people. It seems that many Americans have already made up their minds when it comes to who they’ll be voting for in this election, the debate not doing much to sway their opinion. As November third rapidly approaches, both presidential candidates will need to make big strides in their campaigns to gain the support from still undecided voters.