Civility: What We Want to See From the Presidential Debate

This is the most uncivil election in modern American history. We’ve heard harsh words, watched protests and rallies turn ugly, and seen protesters pushed and pulled from public forums.

It’s normal for Americans to have legitimate disagreements over policy. Over our long careers, we’ve argued countless times, sometimes angrily. But we always treated each other as colleagues, not enemies, which is why we’re still close friends today. But the gaping chasm between the right and the left we see today is far from normal. It’s a hard reality that the country is more polarized than most other points in American history, save the years before the Civil War. The level of vitriol expressed is unprecedented, spilling into America’s collective unconscious. Some fear that this election has changed America permanently; that we have become a meaner nation that cares more about conflict than civility.

We don’t blame them.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will soon step on stage for the first presidential debate. There, they have a chance for a reset, to cool the tempers that have driven this hot election. They can choose to be respectful and remind Americans that we live in a civil society, where debates aren’t won by who shouts the loudest, but by who presents the best arguments. This debate can represent the moment when we began to revive civility and put America back on a track toward unity.

However, after some of this election’s more colorful debates, that future is less certain. The upcoming presidential debates have the potential to be fraught with conflict. We can’t allow that to happen. This debate can be an interesting, civil conversation that helps Americans choose their next leader, but this requires each of us to expect more from the candidates, the audience, and the moderator. Merely holding a debate isn’t enough — it must be civil.

That’s why we support the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s Debate Standards, a framework for a fair and informative debate:

We expect the moderators to serve as impartial referees, ensuring that the candidates are held accountable. Debate rules must be enforced equally, including time allotted. Moderators should address uncivil behavior by clearly naming it and moving the conversation toward a more respectful dialogue.

Audience interruptions are unacceptable, and attacking someone on social media just because he or she disagrees with you only serves to deepen the divide in our country. Whether you agree with the candidate or not, listen with an open mind. That should be, after all, why you are watching the debate.

Finally, we expect the candidates to be respectful of others in speech and behavior. We aren’t suggesting stripping all emotion from candidates’ answers, just invective and abuse. Name-calling and caustic language are inappropriate and unacceptable. We expect candidates to answer the questions asked by the moderator — questions should be treated as questions, not launching-off points for dueling talking points.  The candidates should take responsibility for past and present behavior, whether speech or action. The debate does not exist in a vacuum — what a candidate has said and done in the past matters. If faced with incivility, candidates should stand against it, but with civility: shouting over another is not a way to demonstrate leadership.

Debate is democracy distilled, a venue where candidates and their ideas are vetted on a national stage, for all citizens to witness. It is through these debates that America has chosen its modern leaders, who have guided us through the Cold War, inspired us to reach the moon, and rebuilt a crumbling economy. We must carry on that tradition today.

If we allow the debate to descend into chaos and incivility, we will broadcast an unprecedented statement on the world stage, showing our allies and our enemies an America divided instead of united. When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take that stage on September 26, we earnestly hope for a great debate where they share their visions for America’s future and inspire the nation. Millions of Americans will be watching. The entire world will be watching.

After all, we are choosing our nation’s next leader.


Former Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) are supporters of the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s Debate Standards.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult