The history of debate and civil discourse between candidates running for political office in the United States has long been held up as a pillar of our elections process and our democracy. Typically used as a means to debate policy publicly, defend positions, and appeal to voters, debates bring candidates into the same space and ask them to adhere to a set of agreed upon rhetorical rules of engagement. As we approached the first 2020 presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, many hoped for a sound policy discussion that would leave them with a strong sense of each candidates’ beliefs and positions. What we saw instead was a distressing abandonment of our accepted norms and expectations of civil discourse in favor of a confusing, hostile, and demoralizing exchange on the global stage.
The act of voting is the most important contribution every single eligible voter can make to insure the health of our democracy. Yet year after year, a discouraging number of eligible voters choose not to pull the levers of power. In advance of the midterm elections, Facing History CEO Roger Brooks stops to consider the impact of non-voters, and worse, uninformed voters in an OpEd published on CNN.com:
The 2016 presidential campaign will go down as one of the most divisive in US history. Read what it was like for high school senior, Lilly Hackworth, to vote for the first time during such a contentious race and how she used Facing History and Ourselves to help her navigate such a turbulent political climate.
In the days following the presidential election on November 8, incidents of slurs, threats, and harassment—racist, anti-immigrant, antisemitic, homophobic, and sexist in nature—have spiked across the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, received more than 700 such reports as of November 18.
Before the US presidential election, Eric Liu wrote in a recent article in the Atlantic, “Whatever the outcome on Election Day, more than 40 percent of American voters will feel despondent, disgusted, and betrayed.” As we face this reality together, we have a chance to learn from the pivotal dilemmas and choices of our nation’s past as we pick up the pieces from the exhausting 2016 election cycle. We can look to the aftermath of the Civil War—another period of deep division within the US—to better understand how we got to this current divisive moment filled with vitriolic rhetoric.