This weekend President Obama delivered the University of Michigan commencement address and returned to a favorite theme of his: the need for civility and respect in public discourse. In the president’s words:
The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.
… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right-wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.
So what can we do about this?
As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.
These are wise words that should be taken seriously. Especially by the president himself.
I say that because President Obama’s party and his chief defenders — including the DNC, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Reid — have routinely engaged in the kind of vilification the president condemns. Think of the assault on the Tea Party Movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer; they were accused of being racists and bigots, “an angry mob,” practitioners of “un-American tactics,” “astroturfers” and Nazi-like, and potential Timothy McVeighs. Harry Reid referred to people who showed up at town-hall meetings as “evil-mongers.” Representative Alay Grayson, in characterizing the GOP health-care plans, said that “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do.”
On and on it goes, issue after issue, slander after slander. Yet President Obama has done nothing to call off the attack dogs in his own party, despite his enormous influence with them.
In fact, Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth. “More than any President in memory,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Mr. Obama has a tendency to vilify his opponents in personal terms and assail their arguments as dishonest, illegitimate or motivated by bad faith.”
So President Obama lacerates his critics for engaging in the very activity he indulges in. And he does so in the haughtiest way imaginable, always attempting to portray himself as hovering above us mere mortals, exasperated at the childish and petty quality of the political debate, weary of the name-calling. How hard it must be to be the embodiment of Socratic discourse, Solomonic wisdom, and Niebuhrian nuance in this fallen and broken world.
Here is the rather unpleasant reality, though: our president fancies himself a public intellectual of the highest order — think Walter Lippmann as chief executive — even as he and his team are accomplished practitioners of the Chicago Way. They relish targeting those on their enemies list. The president himself pretends to engage his critics’ arguments even as his words are used like a flamethrower in a field of straw men. It’s hard to tell if we’re watching a man engaged in an elaborate political shell game or a victim of an extraordinary, and nearly clinical, case of self-delusion. Perhaps there is some of both at play. Regardless, President Obama’s act became tiresome long ago.
I am reminded of the line from Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”