Are Civilized Presidential Debates Even Possible? by Alexis Blue-U. Arizona

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have already gone head-to-head in two debates with the third and final one scheduled for Oct. 19.

Among the millions tuning in will be Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, (NICD), a nonpartisan advocacy, research, and policy center focused on increasing civility in public and political discourse.

Presidential Debates
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Presidential Debates

The institute this year issued a list of Standards of Conduct for Debates for candidates, moderators, and audience members. More than 65 organizations have signed on in official support of the standards, and more than 1,200 individuals have signed a petition on Change.org asking debate moderators to adopt and adhere to the standards, which include statements such as “I want the debaters to answer the question being asked by the moderator” and “I want moderators to enforce rules equally.”

In an interview with Alexis Blue from the communications office at the University of Arizona, Lukensmeyer discussed this year’s political campaign—and how the average person can promote civility in public discourse.

Q: How were the debate standards developed, and what is happening with them now?

A: Last summer, informally, the Commission on Presidential Debates came to NICD and suggested that it would be valuable to have a set of standards and asked if we would be interested in researching and developing them.

Interestingly enough, we had had some inquiries from the public even before that, from people who were upset about the tone and toxicity of the presidential campaign, asking if there was anything we could do to develop standards that would demand better behavior. So we jumped on the invitation, and we talked to a few academics and did some focus groups to develop the standards.

We recognized that just having NICD do this would not be as powerful as inviting a lot of other organizations to become partners supporting the debate standards, so organizations have signed on in support, ranging from large national organizations with huge membership, like AARP, to small community organizations that have been working on civility in their own communities.

We then took those standards to the Commission on Presidential Debates, who agreed with us that the standards had value and used relationships to introduce us to moderators and executive producers of all of the four debates. In addition to that, some organizations that are sponsoring state-level debates have also adopted the standards for use in their debates.

Q: What is your assessment of the tone of the current campaign, with regard to civility, and how does it compare with other campaigns in recent history?

A: This campaign now has gone on for more than a year, and incivility has been at the heart of it from the very beginning. A lot of Americans have just begun to say, “Well, this is always the way it is.”

But we’ve actually had some graduate students research presidential debates, by video, all the way back to 1984. As an example, students evaluated all three of the debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and actually there was not a single instance in any one of the debates of candidates violating the debate standards, so we’ve had an amazing shift. There’s not any question that this campaign’s tone and toxicity has dramatically increased from any in recent memory, and we have the data to prove it.

Q: What can the average person do to promote or encourage civility in political discourse, particularly on social media? Why is this important?

A: Incivility in discourse has seeped into our public life at every level. You hear instances of kids on school grounds bullying each other based on the same kind of things they’ve seen on TV between candidates. You see an increasing number of examples of people being disrespectful of other people just because of a difference in opinion.

What people can do is take a little self-reflection on their own behavior. When I am hearing someone speak who thinks completely differently than I do, how do I respond? Do I treat them respectfully? Do I give space for their view or do I react as if because they feel differently than I do they’re less of a person than I am?

People say some things on the internet that shouldn’t be said ever, any place, because it’s easiest to be uncivil on social media.

For the most part, my own experience is when someone starts sort of ranting on social media, trying to engage with them doesn’t change anything. Social media is not a place to try to convince someone who’s being uncivil to change their behavior. It simply doesn’t work.

Source: University of Arizona