America lost the first presidential debate

On Sept. 29, incumbent President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden engaged in the first of four presidential debates. It is itself a matter of debate whether this medley of insults, contradictions and interruptions even qualified as a debate. Millions of Americans endured 90 minutes of a chaotic competition to determine who could sling the most brutal insults and answer the fewest policy questions. Portions of the debate completely lacked coherence as both candidates talked over one another and ignored the moderator’s pleas. Any pretence of respect or attempt at civility quickly disintegrated. The President rarely allowed his opponent to finish a sentence. Joe Biden suffered no qualms telling the current President of the United States to “shut up” or delivering several more stinging insults. Major news outlets continue to argue whether either candidate “won,” or if the unceasing stream of insults and interruptions equally attacked the contenders. The verdict on the candidates’ performance notwithstanding, there is one clear outcome: America lost this debate. 

Until we, as a culture, recognize the deeper problem, we will inevitably witness repetitions of last Tuesday’s sad excuse for a debate.”

Last Tuesday’s faceoff between Trump and Biden offered a sobering commentary on the state of civil discourse in American society. It reflected a culture that has abandoned virtue and deliberation and simultaneously exposed an underlying, societal problem that cannot be solved with a simple election. 

While the candidates’ personalities significantly affected the outcome of last Tuesday’s debate, we cannot lay the blame wholly at their feet. This shocking political spectacle represents the state of the wider culture — a culture that thrives on interruption, self-righteous rhetoric and demonizing the “other.” Debating relies on the ability to recognize complexity and admit that many issues do not fit neatly into black-and-white categories of “good” and “bad.” Reasoned, nuanced deliberation has surrendered to an oversimplified rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge complexity and speaks in terms of “friends” and “enemies.”  If we fail to acknowledge the inherent subtleties intertwined in every issue, we inevitably give merit to performances like last Tuesday’s debate debacle. 

Further, the debate testified to a culture that has largely abandoned any standard of virtue or respect when engaged in civil discourse. The lack of dignity and deference unashamedly displayed by the President and the former Vice President reflects the state of a society that has normalized dehumanizing the opposition. Deliberation demands a validation of the humanity and inherent worth of political opponents, treating them with decency and respect.

Ella Jennings

Idolizing an agenda endangers our ability to engage in productive political deliberation if we refuse to recognize another’s inherent dignity as a person created in the image of God. Civil discourse requires the affirmation that those with whom we disagree are simply acting according to their convictions and are still worthy of respect and honor. 

Social media testifies to these destructive tendencies. The lack of civility and disrespect displayed by President Trump and former Vice President Biden that shocked millions of Americans runs rampant on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds. Political posts oversimplify and demonize the opposition. The majority of comments do not hesitate to dehumanize the author of a post, and most users hidden behind the screen have abandoned any standard of decency or respect. Our internet conversations quickly spiral into personal attacks and identity politics. Why should we be surprised when our political proceedings reflect the reality of our wider culture? 

A simple presidential election will not solve this problem. Merely replacing the residents of the White House or the individual candidates running for office will not reverse the destruction of civil discourse. Until we, as a culture, recognize the deeper problem, we will inevitably witness repetitions of last Tuesday’s sad excuse for a debate. 

America lost the first presidential debate. Last Tuesday’s debate was a blatant symptom of a deeper malady, presenting a striking parallel to the state of civil discourse in the wider culture. America must heed its warning.