We constantly hear about how polarized our country has become. However, it’s not just about political views; for young people, there is a chasm between those fully engaged in politics and those who feel apathetic and disengaged. In the last two years, I’ve spoken at 30 campuses and worked with more than 1,000 students across the country. The entire time, I struggled to find young people who felt hopeful, optimistic, and balanced in their investment in our political process.
Americans of all ages need to be active in politics and committed to causes. It is our social responsibility. However, our media and chattering classes seem to encourage only the most aggressive forms of political engagement. Politicians and pundits trade insults on social media, endlessly trying to one-up each other and fuel their audiences’ desire to see opponents humiliated. The talking heads are already preparing their Cleveland debate talking points. Influencers are waiting to hit “send” on a thousand post-debate hot takes.
This chasm is why my organization, BridgeUSA, partnered with Decision Point and the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Science of Moral Understanding – to improve discourse by creating empathy and constructive dialogue through deliberative decision-making. Psychological research shows that thinking through issues and problems creates bonds between people, whereas visceral and emotional debates create enemies. In videos released earlier this month by our alliance, three former members of Congress explained not their views on abortion, racial justice, or climate change – but how they would advise a president of the United States on appointing someone to lead a federal agency.
Without empathy and humility, passionate people assume that people are evil instead of honestly wrong. Legitimate mistakes in the media are “fake news,” while President Trump’s successes are dismissed or attacked by political opponents. And while transforming our toxic political culture into one which prioritizes substance over empty promises, and compelling visions over personal attacks, won’t happen overnight, it can start on Tuesday with Cleveland debate moderator Chris Wallace.
Wallace performed admirably in 2016 during the final debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He targeted Trump’s tendency to make it up as he goes along, and insisted that Trump clarify his inaccurate comments on the Syrian civil war. He also held Clinton to her own words about opening America’s borders – words from a leaked confidential email that a more sympathetic moderator might have chosen to let slide. He needs to be just as thorough this time around and bring attention to both candidates’ questionable statements. At the same time, he needs to avoid fact-checking every word in real time. As Wallace correctly pointed out four years ago, the candidates should be checking each other. Being informed and confident enough to constructively challenge inaccurate claims is part of the test for the candidates.
One thing Wallace needs to do is get both candidates on record about what they want to accomplish and how they’ll do it. Both Trump and Biden would have to deal with unprecedented division if elected – not just between left and right but within their party. Even if the next president successfully signs legislation, he will likely face serious opposition from the judiciary – something Trump is familiar with due to many injunctions filed during his presidency. The public needs to know how each candidate would overcome all these obstacles, and – most importantly – how the resulting legislation would impact their lives. Wallace will also need to ensure that neither candidate gets away with vague platitudes and personal insults. If he’s diligent and keeps both Trump and Biden focused on the issues, we won’t have to hear what they think about each other yet again, and we might even learn something about their policy proposals.
Trump, Biden, and Wallace can’t fix our political culture. Both candidates are more than half a century older than the rising generation of young voters, and our media is too heavily invested in outrage culture. Nevertheless, a constructive and thorough debate would be a good model for future leaders.