By Jessie Conover, Program Director
You may not have seen it amongst the mudslinging and vitriol, but there was a bright spot in Sunday night’s second presidential debate. The evening didn’t start on the best foot, as indicated by the candidates’ rather pointed refusal to shake hands. The tenor of the debate didn’t improve much, focusing heavily on matters of behavior, temperament, and trustworthiness.
But the last question of the night took me by surprise.
Undecided voter Karl Becker asked the question “Regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” His question received cheers from the audience and smiles from both candidates.
It’s the type of question that mediators ask when helping clients see common ground with their adversaries. It’s used to develop goodwill and to get parties thinking more positively before moving into problem solving, particularly when the relationship is of importance to both parties. In this case, the relationship is important to the American people. Not because we need Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to get along, but because we need to believe in our democratic institutions, and we need to be assured that our next president will uphold them. Answering a question like this presents a test: will the candidates be able to answer a question about respect in a respectful manner? Do they have enough regard for us—the people—to do that?
While the question itself was promising, after a night of tiresome rhetoric I still feared for the answers. To their great credit, both candidates answered thoughtfully and—to my ears—honestly. Of course, each candidate used the opportunity to get their digs in, with Clinton remarking that “I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does” and Trump remarking that he “disagree[s] with much of what she’s fighting for.” In the end, they each found a nugget that they admire about the other person. Clinton complimented Trump’s children, remarking that their devotion and ability “says a lot about [him].” Trump noted that he appreciated the compliment, and “[Clinton] is a fighter. She doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up, and I consider that to be a very good trait.”
And they shook hands afterwards!
If we enmify our adversaries to a point where we can name no redeeming qualities at all, then we are truly in danger. This is not to say that the arc of the campaigns is a shining example of deliberative dialogue. In fact, several moments in this election have sent us teetering into dangerous rhetorical territory, particularly regarding the legitimacy of our democratic processes. And though this election season will go down in history as one of the most polarizing, rancorous, and despicable in our country’s history, this moment, taken in isolation, is a glimpse of the civil civic dialogue of which we are capable.
To paraphrase a Citizens’ Initiative Review panelist, it is amazing that a diverse group of people can come together and come to a conclusion in four days, and it is a wonder that our politicians cannot. I am eager for more questions like this to be part of the healing that our country needs to do after this election. Let’s not rely on our next president to lead us in healing. We can do more by supporting the efforts of those people and organizations around us working to improve the discourse in our country. And, in these last few weeks of the election, let’s challenge ourselves to ask the open ended, positive questions that not only lead us to better information, but also to better relationships across our differences.