After an hour and a half of acrimonious debate Wednesday night between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, moderator Susan Page read them a reckoning from an eighth grader named Brecklynn Brown: “When I watch the news, all I see is arguing between Democrats and Republicans. When I watch the news, all I see is citizen fighting against citizen. When I watch the news, all I see are two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down. If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”
It was quite the indictment of the adults in the room. Pence commended Brown for taking an interest in public life. “Here in America, we can disagree,” he said. “We can debate vigorously, as Senator Harris and I have on this stage tonight. But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans.”
“Brecklynn, when you think about the future, I do believe the future is bright,” Harris added. “And it will be because of your leadership.”
It was a jarringly buoyant finale to a debate otherwise filled with accusations, untruths, and interruptions. But Harris and Pence had nothing on their running mates, former VP Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, who a week earlier in their own debate took all of those ills, turned them up to 11, and threw in vicious personal attacks. That was mostly on the part of Trump, who also managed to cast doubt on the nation’s voting process, refused to take responsibility for an out-of-control pandemic that has killed over 200,000 Americans on his watch, and declined to condemn white supremacy.
The debate was an embarrassment, and afterwards, one of the most common reactions was that viewers found it upsetting—in a visceral, emotional way. CNN reporter Jake Tapper called it “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” The rest of the world is laughing at us, too: Markus Feldenkirchen of the German news magazine Der Spiegel said the debate “was a joke, a low point, a shame for the country.” So we wanted to explore the psychology and political science of why it made people feel so awful.
“I think it was so upsetting because it violated political social norms,” writes James Druckman, a political scientist at Northwestern University, in an email to WIRED. “While those norms have been evolving, there is still presumably an expectation to follow the dictates of the debate structure. That that did not happen generates anxiety in people (violation of norms stimulates anxiety), and hence they are upset and worried, probably on both sides of the aisle.”
Linda Skitka, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, compares the conflict between Trump and Biden to the quarreling of an unhappily married couple. More specifically, she sees it in the context of the Four Horsemen framework of marital conflict, the unhealthy ways people lash out: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
There was certainly stonewalling, with Trump either not answering questions or playing the victim. Trump and Biden were of course critical of one another, this being a debate—but the bickering turned acidic real quick, and stayed acidic. “The worst of these is contempt,” Skitka says. “When you’re actually treating your partner—in this case, it would be your debate partner—as completely worthy of contemptuous treatment. And it’s very hard to come back from that.”
Trump’s disrespect for moderator Chris Wallace, the debate itself, and especially Biden, was virtually constant, “certainly in the regard, for example, Biden’s son and his grief over his son’s death—or even the difficulty of dealing with a child with addiction—and treating those kinds of circumstances with utter contempt,” Skitka says. And Biden, clearly rattled from the start, lost his cool too from time to time, though he was nowhere near as hostile as Trump. “I don’t like the both-siding that happens in a lot of political discourse,” she continues, “but treating the president of the United States with words like ‘clown’ is also contemptuous.”