By Kyle Broxton, DCI Fellow
A little over one week ago, more than seventy-million people witnessed what is commonly referred to as the first “debate” of the 2020 United States presidential election. Throughout the event, the two participants used every opportunity to interrupt, criticize, and crosstalk with each other as well as the moderator. By one count, President Donald Trump interrupted the moderator or his opponent 71 times in 90 minutes; former Vice President Joe Biden did so 22 times. In the days following the event, near-universal criticism centered around the overall failure of the participants to respect each other, each other’s viewpoints, and the rules of the “debate.” But why are we in general agreement that this “debate” was unproductive? Is there something fundamental about this form of discourse that explains where the two presidential candidates fall short of what should have been expected?
It is important to know that many forms of discourse—debates included—are rule-based. Rules are especially important for adversarial forms of discourse as they serve to mitigate the inclination for participants to make rapid, emotionally charged remarks as opposed to articulate, objective arguments. An example of this kind of rule is one mandating that interruptions be kept at a minimum. As this did not occur on September 29th, it follows that the quality of the “debate,” insofar as it involved free and open participation, was poor.
Discourse ethics identifies respect as another indicator of a quality discourse. Respect can be divided into two distinct indicators, respect toward the participants as well as the arguments employed by the participants. Despite the significant difference in political opinions between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, the existing norms of presidential debates suggest that they should highlight these differences while maintaining respect for one another and the arguments that each uses. To show respect for one’s fellow debater does not take the form of many of the remarks the candidates made, such as “there’s nothing smart about you,” or “will you shut up, man?” And to respect the arguments the other has made—though admittedly difficult in the context of the event—is nonetheless possible. For example, one debater could recognize the motivations behind the other’s arguments, while still disagreeing with their construction or importance. When participants show such mutual respect, debates can be more ethical and productive.
Recognizing the importance of following the rules of a debate makes it obvious why the exchange between the two candidates was found to be as problematic as it was. A failure to adhere to the rules results in these indicators of a quality discourse being substituted with frequent interruptions, personal attacks, and antagonism towards each other’s views.
Though the Commission on Presidential Debates (CDP) specified that “the moderator [would] regulate the conversation so that thoughtful and substantive exchanges would occur,” the moderator himself, Chris Wallace of Fox News, admitted he had not been prepared for Trump’s behavior. Ultimately, the quality of the debate left the CDP open to adding more structure “to ensure a more orderly discussion.”
This is to be expected should the goal of these presidential debates be to identify the candidate with the stronger arguments, a goal that cannot be fulfilled if the candidates cannot speak without being interrupted. Furthermore, respect toward the opponent’s argument can only be met if the speaker acknowledges the argument to begin with. Therefore, calls for additional structure in future presidential debates—in the form of muting mics upon interruption or requiring that candidates respond directly and respectfully to the preceding arguments of their opponent—are made in the interest of productive and quality discourse.