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In our opinion: The disastrous presidential debate is America’s problem

To say disrespect is entirely the fault of the president or his opponent is to absolve the American people of their accountability and complicity

President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, gesture during the first presidential debate on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Julio Cortez, Associated Press

This is not politics. What happened on Tuesday night between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden has many names — hot mess, shouting match, boxing bout — but whatever it was, it wasn’t politics, and it certainly wasn’t a thorough deliberation of the issues that will affect Americans in the coming four years.

But for all the criticism being levied against the two candidates (and even some hurled at moderator Chris Wallace), it’s unfair to lay the blame for the meltdown of civic discourse entirely at their feet.

If America wants better, America must be better.

It was indeed a historic evening, if for all the wrong reasons, and many Americans are now scratching their heads wondering what happened and how to fix it. The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday it will implement “tools to maintain order” for the remaining two debates. One likely fix is giving moderators control over the microphones so they can mute one candidate while the other is speaking.

That may improve the sonics of the 90-minute ordeal, but it doesn’t cut to the heart of what America witnessed on Tuesday.

On display was an uncensored spectacle of contempt. It was an outpouring of incivility that predates the current administration and will surely outlive it if nothing changes in the hearts of Americans. Contempt has poisoned public discourse, and Americans should view Tuesday’s debate as a symptom of the disease rather than its cause.

Let us be clear: Neither candidate should be excused for his conduct. Trump repeatedly interrupted his opponent and the moderator, at times talking over both stagemates so as to render the conversation incomprehensible. Facts were difficult to parse out. Biden, too, turned to petty tactics and insults, at one point telling his opponent to “shut up, man.”

They remain accountable for their actions on the stage, and one can imagine a more productive evening had either candidate showed humility, leadership and tolerance.

But to say disrespect is entirely the fault of the president or his opponent is to absolve the American people of their accountability and complicity. Public servants are, after all, reflections of the electorates who choose them.

For years, rancor on social media has soured relationships and, in the worst cases, turned otherwise honorable neighbors and friends into online boors. The collapse of participation in civil society coincides with the rise of digital echo chambers, which seat citizens across the table from their ideological allies to the point that a Seattle City Council member received applause in 2017 by declaring she had no Republican friends.

What should Americans do? Reject it.

Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson admonished on Wednesday: “Stop responding to fear-mongering emails asking for donations. Stop making contempt-filled posts on social media. Stop feeling compelled to respond to the contempt-filled posts of others. Stop attacking those with whom you disagree. Stop making excuses when your friends, elected officials or people you support do inexcusable things. Stop trolling. If we decide to reject what has become accepted behavior, we will eliminate all that wasn’t on Tuesday night.”

The power to improve the national tenor rests in the hearts of its 320 million residents. It only takes a moment of conviction to stand up to hate, contempt and provocation, but the consequences will ring out for years.