Lawrence A Frazin

Having a Civil Political Debate Is Debatable


As we approach the first US presidential debate, I’m wondering if a civil political debate on the issues is still possible. Most remember the last couple of election debates for the behavior of the candidates rather than their world views. In 2020 everyone remembers President Biden telling former President Trump, “Will you shut up man?” Prior to that, in 2016 the most memorable debate moment was former President Trump hovering over former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, trying to intimidate her. Before these two events, the most memorable personal exchange was in a vice-presidential debate between Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Senator Dan Quayle. Senator Quayle tried to point out similarities between himself and President Kennedy, and Senator Bentsen quickly responded, “ I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” I read later that Bentsen was ready to use that line in his debate prep. For this week’s debate, the moderator will resort to turning off candidates’ microphones to ensure proper behavior, something not even done in student debates.

I also wonder if civil political debate among friends and colleagues is still possible. People I know are more entrenched than ever in their views on certain issues. I used to enjoy political discussions, but now try to avoid them. As I was growing up, family gatherings with cousins always included a couple of hours of political discussion of the issues of the day. Everyone had an opportunity to speak and be heard and argued their case passionately. At the end of the evening, they still had differing views, but remained on friendly terms, respecting everyone’s opinion and happy to be with each other. I don’t think that is possible today.

The country is probably more politically polarized than in past elections. Bipartisanship in Congress seems to be on the decline with individual voters following their lead. I remember that two statesmen, the late Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman were best friends from different parties. They respected each other’s views and worked together. We need more of that now. Some say that one reason for the decline in bipartisanship is because members of Congress spend less time in Washington now than in the past, and commute from their home districts more often.

Recent polls show that about 20% of voters are undecided plus there is a third-party candidate this time. The undecided numbers usually diminish as the election gets closer. Unfortunately, with candidates vying for the same pool of voters, negative ads and campaigning increase. I’m not sure that is a successful strategy. Supporters of each candidate seem to become more entrenched in their views as well, which is why I try not to get too deep into political discussions at this time.

That lack of civility is spilling over into international politics. I am getting tired of reading about the sparring between President Biden and Prime minister Netanyahu. It seems there are more meetings, cancellations, reschedules to discuss what one or the other said or meant to say. including disagreements over military strategy, weapons sales and usage, and ceasefire proposals. All of these differences should be worked out in private instead of in quotes and corrections in the media. This drama is hurting both Biden and Netanyahu among voters and more importantly wasting precious time to save the hostages.

I don’t have any magic answers why the world has become more uncivil, but indications are that a key reason is that individuals and countries do not take the time to listen and learn about others’ opinions. We are seeing it in the war in Gaza which started out as a war against Hamas for Israel to defend itself and is incorrectly portrayed by some as a war against the Palestinian people, which it is not. Much of the world has still not even processed or acknowledged the enormity of the Hamas attack.

Protesters use quick catch phrases to broadcast their views which often results in violence against innocent people spreading to college campuses and other public institutions. Rather than listening first, their voices become louder trying to drown out any chance of hearting others’ views or facts.

The presidential candidates are not asking for my opinion, but that has not stopped me in the past. If candidates want to connect more with voters, I suggest that they listen first before speaking instead of trying to fit a square answer into a round question. If they want to appeal to only bullies, then all rules and civility are off.

Candidates need to show courage. President Biden is a decent person, and I have read many stories about him helping people, but he needs to show the courage of his convictions. When you try to please everyone, no one is happy. He has tried to satisfy the progressive wing of his party by changing his rhetoric toward Israel while alienating others. Part of being progressive used to include being against antisemitism. Others like Congressman Ritchie Torres showed their courage by quitting the progressive caucus in Congress in support of Israel. May the most courageous listener win the debate.

About the Author
Israel volunteer and retired pension consultant and course writer from Chicago
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