Notions of civility and egalitarianism are reinforced by interactional regimes. Under this political civility, debaters are expected to interact in ways deemed respectable. At the start of this moment, both Clinton and Trump act comfortably within such regimes. For example, in a response questioning Trump’s integrity, Clinton cites “seventeen of our intelligence agencies” (lines 14, 15) a stylistic choice that allows her to critique her opponent indirectly but strongly, with the seeming objectivity of independent institutions. Such restraint upholds her civility, and thus her place within the interactional regime. Similarly, Trump looks to notes atop his podium while speaking to appear deliberate and prepared in the exchange. Later, Clinton looks to Trump when finished talking, signaling that she is ready for his response.
Again, this is a product of interactional regimes of civility, an expectation that one speaker talks audibly at a time. These moments of political civility are intertwined with notions of democratic egalitarianism, that the candidates converse on equal and fair terms. Indeed, this is how the debate was framed by Wallace’s opening monologue. While these terms are depicted as common sense, even natural, within the realm of discourse, they too are rooted in the regimes that reinforce them. As Fairclough (2014) notes, “the power to project one’s practices as universal and ‘common sense’ is a significant complement to […] power” (p. 64). It is the relationship between these regimes and the empowered speaker that define the discourse.
1 Clinton: This has come from the highest [hand extended upwards] levels of the Russian government,
2 clearly from Putin himself in an effort,
3 Trump: [looking now at podium, writing]
4 Clinton: as [looking at camera, two hands together, moving down upon each syllable] 17 of our
5 intelligence agencies have confirmed, to influence our election. So I actually think the most
6 important question of this evening, Chris, is finally [dramatic gesture], will Donald Trump admit
7 and condemn that the Russians are doing this,
8 T: [laughs, shaking head]
9 C: and make it clear that [gesturing toward Trump] he will [hand down after each word] not
10 have the help of Putin in this election, that he rejects Russian espionage against Americans,
11 which he actually encouraged in the past. Those [gesture outwards] are the questions we need
12 answered. We've never had anything like this happen [right hand up while shrugging] in any of
13 our elections before. [looks to Trump, finger graces face]
14 T: That was a great pivot [right arm up] off the fact that she wants open borders, okay?
15 Audience: [laughs]
16 T: How did we get on to Putin? [emphasis on Putin, both arms up, leans in to the microphone]
17 Wallace: [Turning around to face audience, gesturing outward] Hold on, folks. Because this is going to
18 end up getting out of control. Let's try to keep it quiet. [gesturing to candidates] For the
19 candidates and for the American people.
Trump’s actions also indicate the ongoing struggle for social capital in this context; by distracting audience members from her claims, even if done by violating regimes of civility, he attempts to retain social capital he would otherwise lose upon the acceptance of such slanderous revelations. Furthering this lacking of civility, Trump’s response to Clinton—“That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders, okay?” (line 14) —is highly informal and brash. Critically, it indicates the social capital, and thus power, that allows Trump to make such a statement. Posed as a question, this statement was also provocative, prompting laughter in the audience despite Wallace’s earlier requests that they remain silent. Trump’s transgression gave them the license to act in kind. Yet the audience only does so in response to Trump—maintaining his power as the instigator, he momentarily remains in control.
The most revealing line of the exchange, however, is Wallace’s despair that the discourse is “getting out of control” (line 18)—his control. Suggesting that the audience’s cheering prompted his response, Wallace implies that, if fleeting, they had social capital and power, even in ways that might parallel democracy. Yet, the audience quickly returns to silence as Wallace asserts control. The audience’s interjection was thus not as much democratic as it was a response to Trump’s transgressions. In fact, by returning to order, they actually reinforced—through a dialectic that “forms and informs” (Bourdieu p. 110) social practices—the very civility that was transgressed. Moreover, Wallace’s appeal that the audience remain quiet “for the American people” associates patriotism—and imagined nationhood—with political civility. Their silence is thereby imperative to the maintenance of not only civil discourse, but also democracy itself.
Quickly moving from a discussion steeped in political civility to one of audience participation and transgression of order, this moment of the third presidential debate illuminates the intersections of power, capital, and nationhood within political discourse. Clinton and Trump at first use their social capital within regimes of civility, while Trump’s transgression of these is a ploy for power. The audience’s short-lived interjection reinforces these regimes and ultimately reinstates order.
- Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. Lauder, H. Education, globalization, and social change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. London: Longman.
- NBC News. (2016, October 19). The Third Presidential Debate: Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump (Full Debate). Video file retrieved from https://youtu.be/smkyorC5qwc
William is a student in the introductory sociolinguistics course at Swarthmore College.