Maybe it’s just that the past four years have lowered the bar for civility and productivity so much that an ant could sashay over it. Maybe it’s just that 20 candidates, two-night debates and three-hour runtimes have worn me down. But sometime in the first hour of Thursday’s debate, I realized something surprising: The Democratic debates are actually making me feel a little better about the state of America.
It’s not that the debates are uniformly nice: Former vice president Joe Biden’s opponents have used the events to question him in strikingly personal terms. It’s not that the candidates agree on everything: Gestures of unity aside, they are deeply divided on policy and style, and their constituents are, too. Rather, the debates have served as a reminder that Americans can differ on hugely important questions; they can rub each other the wrong way; they can even hurt each other; and they can still find ways to talk to each other.
The 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have called that idea into question, and not entirely without reason, but certainly not without cost. The stakes are incredibly high. Stephen Miller, the architect of President Trump’s immigration policy, was publicly condemned by his uncle. A Supreme Court case about gerrymandering was thrown into turmoil by files uncovered by a Republican redistricting expert’s estranged daughter. Families have been torn apart by bizarre conspiracy theories. President Barack Obama’s career-making refusal to believe that there are two Americas has never seemed more distant.
Obviously, the Democratic contenders for president have not been exactly kind to the man they hope to defeat in November. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) called him out in her opening statement on Thursday and suggested that Trump has been “tweeting out the ammunition” for mass shootings such as the one in El Paso. But given how imperative beating Trump is, and how bitter the post-2016 recriminations have been, it wouldn’t have been shocking to see the Democrats tear into each other with the same sort of ferocity.
That didn’t happen. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), when asked which fellow candidates on stage she finds “extreme,” refused to play the game. She praised Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as a legislative partner before differing with him on the value of the private insurance Americans have now. Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke may be fading, but his competitors chose to finish him off with kindness, praising his response to a recent mass shooting in his city, rather than trying to destroy him. When Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) challenged the other contenders on criminal-justice reform, he did it in a detailed and constructive way, asking them to talk specifically about which incarcerated people they’d give clemency to if they had the power of the presidency at their disposal.
Even the difficult moments have been oddly heartening. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro’s efforts to call Biden’s memory into question seemed like a necessary line to press to some and a shocking breach of decorum to others. But the format of the debate means that the candidates needed to stay on stage — Biden to withstand a hurtful exchange, Castro to defend it. At a moment when it’s easy to walk away from a Twitter fight, there’s something refreshing about seeing candidates be forced to absorb a difficult moment and move on.
The same thing happened earlier in the debate season, when Harris asked Biden to reflect on how his opposition to the use of busing as a school desegregation tool would have affected her. If Americans are going to come together in any meaningful way, they’re going to have to be able to ask and answer sometimes-painful questions, and to do it directly to the people who make those choices and are affected by them.
It doesn’t seem likely that there will be much in the way of Republican primary debates. And even if they did take place and Trump did deign to participate, they certainly wouldn’t feature the same variety of life experiences and perspectives. The declared candidates — including Trump, former Massachusetts governer Bill Weld, former representative Joe Walsh and former representative Mark Sanford — are all white men aged 57 or older. They might be divided on questions of style and the value of populism. But none of them would have been kept out of a good school by another candidate’s busing policy or have to carry a heavy generational burden imposed on them by much older candidates.
That may seem like an advantage, and in the short term, perhaps it is. If a party wants to win elections, and if politicians want to be able to unite the country, they need to have a lot of very hard discussions, and to keep going even when those conversations end poorly or painfully. The Democratic primary debates have served as a much-needed reminder that those discussions might still be possible.