When Barack Obama first appeared on the national scene, he set himself apart with his demonstrated willingness to intellectually engage his opponents. “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree,” he promised. This has been Obama’s hallmark at the Harvard Law Review, in the Illinois statehouse, and as president, where he’s dined with conservative pundits and held unprecedented free-form wonkfests with the Republican opposition.
In his commencement address last weekend at the University of Michigan, Obama called for “civility” in public life. Civility sounds like another word for that same principle. In fact, it’s something different—at best, a mushy concept, and, at worst, a pernicious one.
The embrace of “civility” is not so much a diagnosis of the problems of public discourse as a reflection of them. The two parties present themselves as upholding the highest standards of discourse while furiously casting their opponents as nasty brutes. U.S. politics is coming to resemble a European soccer game, or perhaps a Duke intra-squad basketball scrimmage—each side more concerned with feigning a foul at the hand of the opponent than scoring points of their own. Washington has become a city of floppers.
Obama began his speech by quoting a letter from a kindergartner, who asked, “Are people being nice?” Sadly, the president continued, they are not. “We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names,” lamented Obama. “Pundits and talking heads shout at each other.”
Obama singled out Fox News. But, of course, the problem with Fox is not that it features pundits who shout at each other. The problem is that it’s a propaganda organ masquerading as a news outlet. The pundits on Fox don’t shout at each other, they bask in mutual agreement. When shouting does occur, it’s usually a one-sided affair in which some hapless liberal is invited on the air to be shouted down. It’s appropriate that Obama cites a child in his indictment of Fox News. To chastise Rupert Murdoch’s brand of pseudo-journalism for its lack of niceness is literally to embrace childlike reasoning.
Obama proceeded to castigate the political culture for “demonizing” opponents. Then his logic went badly awry:
Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut”—that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.
Is it uncivil to accuse your opponents of being socialist or of planning a “Soviet-style takeover”? Presumably, Obama would have no problem levying such a charge against, say, Lenin in 1917. It’s not an inherently uncivil accusation. It’s appropriateness depends on whether it’s actually true.
The notion that Obama is socialist proceeds from a specific right-wing ideological analysis. Certainly, that analysis is crazy. (Oops, I just said something uncivil. Sorry, President Obama.) Socialism is a contested term, but it has two basic meanings. As defined by American Socialists more than a century ago, it meant progressive taxation, public schools, worker-safety laws, and other reforms that have long since attained bipartisan acceptance. In the stricter sense, it means abolition of private property, or, at least, of private industry. By the first definition, both parties are socialist. By the second, neither is. There is no sense in which Obama is “imposing socialism” upon a non-socialist state. But you must establish this by engaging the analysis rather than dismissing it as uncivil.
Obama defended civility as essential to “keep[ing] our democracy healthy.” Yet he also acknowledged that American history is replete with vitriol and slander that would make Rush Limbaugh queasy. “A newspaper of the opposing party,” Obama recounted in the speech, “once editorialized that, if Thomas Jefferson were elected, ‘Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.’” If we’ve lived with “incivility” for 200-plus years, then how can it be a threat to the republic? Answer: It’s not, but pretending it is can be a useful device for a president to hold himself above the fray.
Obama may seek to cloak himself in the mantle of victimhood, but Republicans will not cede it to him without a fight. Last week, conservatives suddenly seized themselves of the conviction that Obama is a “bully.” CNBC commentator Dennis Kneale laid the charge upon Obama, citing as evidence his criticism of Arizona’s draconian immigration law. “The President called the measure ‘misguided’ and all but labeled it un-American,” huffed Kneale. Misguided? You go too far, sir! Kneale proceeded to complain, “President Obama maligns Wall Street for trying to have a say in financial reform and lobbying for its interests, though this input is a vital ingredient in any democratic process.”
Former Karl Rove deputy Pete Wehner, thrilled by Kneale’s conceptual breakthrough, cited it approvingly. A few days later, Rove himself repeated the theme in a Wall Street Journal column. (“[T]he practice of summoning critics to bully them in public is unpresidential and worrisome.”) This, coming from a man who once waged a judicial election by smearing his candidate’s opponent—known for his work on behalf of abused children—as a pedophile.
By the end of the week, The Weekly Standard had an editorial, “The Bully Party,” parroting the line. A full page of indignant, wounded rhetoric hinged upon this grievance: “President Obama,” lamented the Standard, “divided the world into those who ‘join me,’ and those who support the ‘battalions of financial industry lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill.’” Pointing out that financial lobbyists were supporting the congressional opposition—the brute!
Why the incessant demands for civility and cries of foul play? Americans hate political conflict. In a 2002 book, political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse note that Americans fail to understand ideological disagreements between the parties. Voters think everybody should agree and interpret the lack of consensus as a sign of misgovernance.
The parties’ constant efforts to claim the rhetorical high ground and to blame the other side for all the nastiness is a pander to the public’s childlike belief in unanimity and concord. If they really wanted to raise the level of discourse, they would level with the public about the necessity of argument.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.