Debates and the Spirit of Civility

By Richard Nelson

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October 16, 2015

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Having watched two Republican debates and the most recent Democratic debate, there are a couple of observations we can surmise from them. Principally we can say that sometimes—and especially in nationally televised debates—less is more. The sheer amount of candidates on the stage for the Republican nomination was revealed by their counterpart’s performance to hamper the discussion. Where two or three Republicans were persuading the moderator for more time to speak, there was very little of such positioning this week on the Democratic side. Where two or three candidates were speaking over one another at the Republican debate, only a few moments can be remembered as such during the Democratic debate. Whatever we may think of the respective answers provided on both stages, the Democratic stage showed us the benefit of placing as few candidates as possible on a stage. This is where ideas are exchanged (or at least we hope) and candidates are challenged (or at least we hope). This is an opportunity to explore the candidates ideas, and reviewing such beliefs hinge on the potential future President being able to articulate without fear of interruption or an unnecessary time-crunch. 

Secondly, the Democratic debate was a mix of good ol’ honest civility and downright obfuscation. Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton demonstrated a civility and respect toward one another that should be commended. They allowed each candidate to speak, to respond to their remarks, and generously pressed one another. That civility was not provided to the Republicans. They were accused of using Benghazi as a political ploy, making Secretary Clinton’s email boondoggle into a charade, and being big government because it investigated Planned Parenthood. The candidates would do well to remember that though it may score political points with their base, civility is a trait that should be extended to everyone—especially your opponents. Obfuscation on display during both debates is like not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing. The problem here is that it doesn’t change what the left hand has done. Merely making the American electorate look at your right hand doesn’t absolve your lefthand from offense. Know it and own it. 

Republicans and Democrats alike would do well to remember that our commonwealth and our nation is better off when their leaders can depict a deep civility with one another even when they profoundly disagree. Civility is not naiveté wrapped in eloquence. It is the very core of our democracy. We assume the best because we want the best for everyone—including our opponents. 

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