By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Debating the debates
News flash, research project finds incivility in presidential, vice-presidential debates
Placeholder Image

 Many of us have watched all of, or at least parts of, the presidential debates. And, it should come as no big surprise that an ongoing research project involving Kansas State University researchers and students has found that the 2016 presidential election has reached unprecedented levels of incivility. 

This is a partnership between Kansas State University’s Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. It focuses on civility in the presidential and vice presidential debates. 

Also, as a no-brainer, the results based on student surveys after the first three debates have shown that 2016 candidates are “engaging in behavior that violates civil behavior and the traditional rules of engagement.”

“The 2016 election cycle has highlighted the increased sense of fracturing in society,” said Timothy Shaffer, assistant director of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy and assistant professor of communication studies. “Robust and vigorous disagreement is the heart of democracy, but norms that have shaped debates and other presidential campaigns have been widely disregarded.” 

Shaffer is working with Robert Boatright, research director for the National Institute for Civil Discourse. The project involves surveys of about 100 students from KSU, Clark University and Assumption College. About 50 of those survey respondents are Kansas State University students. 

“For us to have any kind of functional government and shared life — both formal and in our communities — we need to know how to engage with people who have different views and positions, which is totally fine and appropriate. We may see things differently, but can we find some common ground?” Shaffer said.

Following the first two presidential debates and the one vice-presidential debate, student filled out detailed questionnaires. The surveys identify uncivil behavior — such as direct insults, interruptions or refusal to answer a question — and civil behavior — such as taking responsibility for past errors and denouncing uncivil acts.

Some survey results so far (again, no surprise for those who tuned in): 

• The 2008 and 2012 debates had far fewer insults than the 2016 debates, which also have involved different types of insults. The 2016 candidates have accused their opponents of being liars and questioned their intelligence and character.

• The volume of interruptions in the 2016 debates has exceeded the norm for presidential debates. 

• Other examples of unprecedented uncivil behavior in the 2016 debates include intimidation by invading the other candidate’s physical space; calling each other names; and threatening to throw one’s opponent in jail.

•  Both vice presidential candidates fell short on civility as well.

• In the second presidential debate, moderators did their best to enforce the rules of engagement and hold candidates accountable. 

“Entrenchment does little to solve our collective challenges and, in this election cycle, seems only to fill our echo chambers,” Shaffer said. “Civil and deliberative discourse opens up the possibility that we look beyond our ‘blue’ or ‘red’ news feeds on Facebook or the talking points from our preferred media outlets. If we can’t talk with one another, how can we live with one another?”

Obviously, we are not gaining any insights into who would be the best candidate to lead this nation through these tough times by watching them duke it out on television. Nor do any of the ads, releasing of cell phone videos or leaking of emails.

But, at the same time, an informed electorate is a free electorate. Since those running for office won’t tell us what the stand for, we have to look past the bickering and do our own due diligence.

We can’t expect them to do it for us so we have to take it upon ourselves to learn and cast an educated ballot Nov. 8.

Dale Hogg