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The first Trump-Biden debate was unruly. Is American civil discourse dead?


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: There has been much discussion and analysis of Tuesday's debate, mostly focused on the president's behavior.

We take a deeper look now to ask, does the lack of real debate and civil discourse speak to something larger in American society?

Jeffrey Brown talks with two distinguished political scientists for our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Thanks, Judy.

I'm joined by Danielle Allen, a widely published author on democracy from ancient Greece to today. And she's the director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. And Pete Peterson writes and speaks on public engagement and is dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.

Welcome to both of you.

Danielle Allen, I'll start with you.

We watched a president who has shattered many norms shatter yet another one. And I know you have studied and watched debates through history, the language of debates.

What did you see the other night?

Danielle Allen: Thanks so much for having me, Jeff.

I saw somebody who has no interest in rules. It's that simple. Rules were agreed on in advance, allocated speaking times, and the president was absolutely insistent on just using physical force to power through the structure of the rules meant to make the debated productive.

Jeffrey Brown: Pete Peterson, what was your take?

Pete Peterson: I think it's fair to say the president treated the debate as if it were a press conference.

He noted often that he didn't really prepared for this debate, as he felt like he did usually in press conferences, which obviously are very combative in the way that he hosts them. And he stepped into a debate that was really meant to be an exchange of ideas, and attempted to dominate.

Jeffrey Brown: I want to broaden it to the rules of our society, to put that debate into context.

I want to read a quote to you from one report about the debate. "For many," it says, "a hallmark of thriving American democracy, the presidential debate, was instead transformed into an emblem of democracy's deterioration."

And the question I want to ask you is, how much or in what way do debates matter? How much does public language matter?

Danielle Allen: Democracy depends on language. Language is the instrument of free self-government. So, the quality of our language matters immensely.

I think one of the challenges is that, in truth, we don't, actually, any of us, have a lot of practice with debates these days. So, to think of conversation with structured rules, to practice taking turns and so forth, once upon a time, that was something that was practiced extensively throughout the American educational system.

It's really fallen away.

Jeffrey Brown: Pete Peterson, what do you see in the culture, in the way we talk to each other or don't talk to each other today?

Pete Peterson: Yes, I think, in many ways, that we see a broader political culture that really does not stand for disagreement and debate or persuasion.

All of these skills, we have known since our founding. The importance of deliberation and persuasion in settling disagreements and coming to common agreement on important policy issues have always been a part of the American system of governance.

And what we have seen over the last few years and exemplified on the debate stage was not just what happened in a particular debate, but really did illustrate a broken political culture.

Jeffrey Brown: And, Danielle Allen, what -- it's a big question, but what caused it? You know, what led to what we see -- what we saw the other night?

Danielle Allen: I think there are a number of causes.

One is serious disinvestment in civic education in the country. So, currently, we spend about $54, federal dollars, per year on STEM education, but only 5 cents a year on civics education, of federal spending. That's a real indication of our priorities.

And where once, indeed, debate leagues were spread throughout the country, they have significantly retracted. Similarly, civics courses, where once there were sort of three required in high school, that quantity has retracted. There's less time in school in these areas and less opportunity for young people to practice these kinds of skills.

So, that's one important element. We also do have to point to our media ecosystem. And we have made a transition in the last decade-and-a-half from being a really text-oriented culture, an ultimately reading culture, to being an oral culture.

And I think argument works differently in an oral culture. And we haven't actually built up healthy norms for argument in a truly oral sound-bitey culture.

Jeffrey Brown: And that -- I think you're both sort of referring also to the political tribalism which pervades so much of our political culture.


Pete Peterson: I agree.

In fact, I would say one of the initiatives that we have here at the Policy School has been exploring this issue of loneliness, something that we have seen now across disciplines, whether it's economics or social psychology, these increasing senses of loneliness, even before the social distancing that we have been forced to go through here over the last six months.

And it's been our view that these increasing senses of loneliness and disconnection from one another and disconnection from civic institutions, from churches to civil society, has forced people to find their identity almost explicitly, if not completely, in politics.

And once we find our identity completely in politics, that really does exacerbate these tribal tendencies that we see. We don't see these mediating forces of identity that we have always had access to in America, from our local communities, to our churches and faith organizations, to broader civil society.

And with the withering of those connections, we, as human beings, will seek that connection. And, unfortunately, we have seen a lot of emphasis now put on our political identities.

Jeffrey Brown: Danielle Allen, do you see any places in American society where there is civil discourse going on?

Danielle Allen: One of my favorite examples is a program in Lexington, Kentucky, called CivicLex.

Now, this is a place that is using the tools of technology to rebuild local investigative journalism, local explanatory journalism. They're sort of filling a news desert. We're used to talking about food deserts. We also have news deserts these days.

But, in addition to doing that, they're actually also rebuilding spaces for people to come together and process that news about politics in the community. And there's a really important rule that they use for these spaces. It's that, for every officeholder, whether they're elected or appointed, who is in the conversation, there won't be more than seven members of the general public.

You're there to have a conversation with real people at a scale where exactly the kind of connectedness that Pete was just referring to matters.

Jeffrey Brown: And, Pete Peterson, a last word from you briefly. Do you see some spaces where there is real dialogue?

Pete Peterson: Yes, I'm a great fan of the organization called Braver Angels, used to be known as Better Angels.

They actually use the concepts of marriage therapy into bringing together conversations with people across the left and right to not only better understand each other, but to talk through very polarizing policy issues, and also to focus on things that are more local level, which I think are -- is so important to, in some ways, disconnecting us from these federal issues, to think more about what's going on locally, where we can find issues of agreement.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, some positive news at the end of our discussion.

Danielle Allen and Pete Peterson, thank you both very much.

Danielle Allen: Thanks, Jeff.

Pete Peterson: Good to be with you.

Judy Woodruff: And thank you, Jeff, for just such a wonderful conversation, so important for all of us to hear.

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