Scott Rasmussen: America is better than Sunday’s un-presidential debate

Scott Rasmussen

Whatever else it may have been, Sunday’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump wasn’t very presidential. Taunts of how she should be in jail and he’s unqualified may thrill the partisan bases, but they do nothing to help the nation move forward.

The mutual disgust and enmity was so strong that both candidates struggled when asked to name one positive thing about the other. Clinton couldn’t say anything nice about Trump other than being impressed by his children. Trump said he disagrees everything she fights for, but gave Clinton credit for being a fighter.

This moment clarified just how far our public discourse has fallen. In the very first response during the very first televised presidential debate, Richard Nixon began by saying he agreed with many of the things his opponent — John Kennedy — had said. Even when he disagreed with Kennedy on a policy point, Nixon said he respected the sincerity with which it was made.

Fifty-six years later, the hunger for such civility and common ground was reflected in the applause at the town hall meeting in St. Louis. The applause was not for the candidates. It was for the question. It was for the civility of asking two candidates if they could ditch the hate for a moment and say something nice about the other.

Civility and common ground can be found today in American communities from coast to coast.

Americans from all walks of life share a unifying idea that all of us should be free to live our own lives as we see fit, so long as we don’t deny the rights of others to do the same. There is also a shared belief that we should use our freedom to work together in community. We don’t want to be rugged individualists, we want to find ways to work together and make the world a better place.

So, why don’t our politics reflect the better angels of our society?

Part of the problem is that we mistakenly expect politicians to lead the nation. That converts every election into a high stakes contest that activists claim will determine America’s future.

With so much supposedly at stake, voters compromise their values to achieve victory. The natural end result is the ugly debate we saw in St. Louis last Sunday night.

If we want a better brand of politics, we need to start by recognizing that the culture leads and politicians lag behind. Yes, elections matter. Yes, we should vote even if it’s just to select the lesser of two evils. But it is our actions outside of politics that determine the fate of the nation.

What America needs today is moral leaders outside of politics who can lift up a vision of what a free and self-governing people can accomplish by working together in community. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. provided such leadership and challenged our nation to be better in his magnificent Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

An important part of that message is that we must all do our part. As Professor Jonathan Rieder put it, King’s “gospel of freedom does not permit people to just sit on the sidelines and pretend they are immune from responsibility.”

Rather than demanding better angles from others, let’s begin by finding them in ourselves.