What do we really think about debate lies and insults?
© Greg Nash

There has been a lot of talk about insults and lies this election cycle. Are they out of bounds in presidential debates? This is a trickier question than it might first appear to be.

This fall, I have been working with the National Institute for Civil Discourse on a project to measure civility in the presidential debates. Our initial aim was simple: We asked prominent politicians, journalists and academics about what the most important characteristics of civil or uncivil behavior in a debate were, and we developed a questionnaire based on their answers.


It included questions about whether the candidates insulted each other, avoided answering questions, took responsibility for their mistakes or spoke out against uncivil statements made by their supporters. We then had over 100 students at three different universities watch the debate and fill out the questionnaire.

However, this questionnaire was written based on things people liked, or didn't like, about past debates. This year's debates are so different from anything we have seen before that many of our questions seem irrelevant. You don't need a Ph.D. to conclude that the Oct. 9 town hall debate was less civil than the average presidential debate. It was not, really, a debate at all.

But there's no way anyone could have known this 18 months ago.

Before the debates began, someone asked me what I meant when I asked whether the candidates insulted each other. I'd just assumed that the people filling out questionnaires could determine for themselves what counted.

I've been struck, however, by the diversity of answers. Some found it insulting when Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE began a response by saying "Just listen to what you heard." Others found it insulting when GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE called Clinton a "typical politician."

Sometimes we know when an insult has been hurled; other times we may hear what we want to hear.

There are some complicated issues here. First, there is the question of truth. If a candidate really is a liar, is it insulting to point this out? This is, after all, the most common line of attack in presidential debates, yet it's not clear why it is actually an insult. Is it insulting to use a candidate’s words against him?

Recall that in the vice presidential debate, Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceHaley has 'positive' meeting with Trump Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mitch McConnell's great Trumpian miscalculation MORE (R-Ind.) accused Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineLiberty University professor charged with alleged sexual battery and abduction of student Senate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Menendez jabs State official over Colombian group's terror designation MORE (D-Va.) of hurling insults at him when Kaine recited a number of Trump's comments.  What often goes unsaid here is not that the facts are in dispute, but that we selectively use facts to paint a picture. Perhaps what Pence meant to say was not that he felt insulted by hearing the quotes, but that he felt insulted by the unspoken claim that he was the kind of person who condoned such statements.

Second, even if we concede that it is uncivil to call one's opponent a liar, might this not be preferable to the sort of euphemisms candidates have used in past debates? In 2012, for instance, neither President Obama nor Republican nominee Mitt Romney referred to each other as a liar, but they did accuse each other of "trying to airbrush history," being "all over the map," "telling a whopper," or being "wrong and reckless."

Perhaps the candidates should have just called each other liars? Perhaps doing so would be more honest; and perhaps this is what voters mean when they accord candidates such as Trump credit for their honesty.

However, democracy is dependent on a certain amount of pretense – the pretense that elections are a battle of ideas, not people; the pretense that one's opponent's bad ideas are the consequence of a failure to understand, not of malice; the pretense that the airing of two sides of an issue in a debate can somehow lead us to agreement or truth.

Even on the pretense that the candidates actually like each other, their opponent's supporters, their opponent's families.

These are fictions – lies, if you will – that we expect candidates to tell. There is a big difference between directly impugning someone's character – calling one's opponent corrupt, or a liar or a "bad person" – and suggesting (even if insincerely) that one's opponent has been mistaken during much of his or her career.

We expect candidates to say this because we want to believe they feel this way. It is also possible that if candidates say them enough, they may actually start to believe them.

If we are going to rescue our presidential debates from the abyss into which they have fallen, if we're going to move on after this election, it might be helpful for us to think a little bit about the importance of such norms.

Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University in Massachusetts and the director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Research Network.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.