During a panel following the event, CNN’s Dana Bash was incredibly forthright about the first 2020 presidential debate: “It was a shitshow.” If anything, Bash is being modest. This debate was such a heavy pile of you-know-what that it would have made the Augean stables jealous. It was messy, rude, bickersome and exhausting. What traditionally is held up as a night of epic civil discourse about winning over the hearts and minds of America was turned into an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
Most startling for many was the clear lack of civility. At risk of pointing fingers, there was a clear reason why Chris Wallace sounded like he wanted to call the school dean on President Donald Trump within five minutes of the debate. Trump employed a strategy of drowning out former Vice President Joe Biden by simply talking over him. Somehow, no one saw this coming, and the moderator’s repeatedly futile attempts to regain control just added another voice to the cacophony of unintelligible noise. At some point, Biden got so visibly frustrated that he decided to tussle in the weeds as well, and viewers could delight in one-and-a-half hours of old men accusing each other of lying in the styling of dialogue from a Safdie Brothers’ movie. Indeed, the last semblance of civil American political discourse was Hindenburg-ed on live television.
Honestly, it’s about time.
American politics has maintained a bizarre fetishization with the concept of civility for a long time now. It’s the reason many pundits nearly fainted every time Donald Trump spoke in the 2016 Republican primaries. Our politicians are supposed to respect each other, after all. What ever happened to decency, taking the high road, and so on and so forth? The list of funny ways Americans have communicated the idea that politicians need to be nice to their opponents could fill a book. In less polarized times, the idea perhaps made a lot of sense. A calm and collected leader who can “get along” with people they disagreed with projects a lot of strength. One can imagine in the “big tent” Democrat parties of the ancient era how regular order, 20th century congress and the ability to not immediately resort to petty squabbling and insults would have been an important leadership tool. Ditto for “compromise” and “agreeing to disagree.” Of course, nowadays, the country is absolutely polarized, which means civility died a long time ago in discourse amongst the electorate. Only in the upper echelons of political punditry and media framing does the idea still hold relevance, and it is time to let it go.
Sure, no one wants to sit through a screaming match, but look around … look at 2020! Does it not feel appropriate? A century of civility let a multitude of serious issues fester and become terminal, and now that same civility is what we need to save us? When the stakes are as high as they are right now, I want the candidates to call each other idiots for proposing bad policy. I want them to call each other cowards for hemming and hawing about make-or-break issues. I want them to get angry and be rude on behalf of the American people if one candidate is going to propose a path forward that leads to nowhere. Anything less is a disgrace to the gravity of the current situation. See, within this uncivil mess of a debate, actual nuggets of importance were revealed that never would have seen the light otherwise. Would you get to ask Donald Trump to disavow white supremacy in a civil debate? Would you get to ask Joe Biden if he, more or less, has the cajones to call in the National Guard to crack the skulls of civilian protestors in a civil debate? Of course not—these questions are inherently mean, but they are the questions Americans want the answers to.
So, next time, let’s hope the moderators find a way to make the debate more structured. Perhaps they can cut the other candidate’s mic when it is not their turn to speak, or give the moderator a little crossbow that shoots rubber bands to establish order. Don’t, however, cling to the naive hope that civility will return or be the savior of America. The gloves are off, and they are not coming back.
Vincent Rendon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @VinceSagebrush.