To put this year’s presidential debates in historical perspective, the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) has updated its prior research on civility in those debates going back to 1960.
At 38, the first 2020 presidential debate tied the record set in the 2016 debates for the number of uncivil comments made. With the aid of muted mics for opening responses and the widespread panning of the first debate, the second debate came in slightly lower at an average of 32 uncivil comments as viewed by our raters. The average across the two debates this year is slightly below the 2016 average.
In the attention to recent presidential debates, it’s important to recognize that the trend toward incivility started decades ago, long before Donald Trump and Joe Biden were this year’s nominees.
Our analysis also reflects the deeper, structural trend toward increasingly polarized political parties. For example, as seen in the chart above, our analysis of the rise in the average number of uncivil statements in presidential debates tracks closely on the heels of the rise in congressional polarization as measured by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal’s Polarization Index.
The 40-year trend toward both debate incivility and increasingly polarized parties suggests that this year’s campaign cannot be fully understood simply in terms of the characters of the candidates. The problem is deeper and more systemic than that and likely to continue in future elections with different nominees.
Given these long-term, structural changes, we may not be able to count on political leaders in the coming years to advocate and listen across our divides without ridicule. We, the American people, will need to be the country’s saving grace, engaging our differences constructively so that we can find wise solutions for our communities and our nation.