Saturday, September 8, 2012

Civility Watchdog: President Barack Obama's Address to Democratic National Convention

On September 6, 2012, President Barack Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention. Below are some of the highlights concerning civil, productive debate:
"I know that campaigns can seem small, and even silly. Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. And the truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising. If you're sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me -- so am I."
Comment: Politicians frequently denounce campaign tactics in the abstract, without making any mention of whether they and their own campaign share any guilt. Apart from taking responsibility for being part of an "avalanche of advertising", this is what Obama is doing here. These kinds of denunciations in the abstract could be seen as implicitly making the "only my opponent" caricature: "I know there's a lot of misbehavior out there, but I'm not acknowledging that I'm engaging in any of it", which leaves your opponent as the most likely suspect. This might also be "unnamed antagonist" rhetoric.

"On every issue, the choice you face won't be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future. Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known; the values my grandfather defended as a soldier in Patton's Army; the values that drove my grandmother to work on a bomber assembly line while he was gone. They knew they were part of something larger -- a nation that triumphed over fascism and depression; a nation where the most innovative businesses turned out the world's best products, and everyone shared in the pride and success -- from the corner office to the factory floor."
Comment: This seems like a derisive caricature. Is Obama saying that Republicans don't share the values that Americans (like General George S. Patton) had as they fought to defeat the Nazis in World War II? That they don't believe that they're part of something larger than themselves?

"[A]ll they [i.e., Republicans] have to offer is the same prescription they've had for the last thirty years: "Have a surplus? Try a tax cut." "Deficit too high? Try another." "Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!""
Comment: Suppose someone said that all Democrats have to offer is the same policies they've offered for the last 30 years: "more spending, more regulations, call us in the morning"? Would that be a caricature? If so, isn't Obama's description of Republicans also a caricature?

"I don't believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China. After all that we've been through, I don't believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home. We've been there, we've tried that, and we're not going back. We're moving forward."
Comment: This is a caricature of what Republicans believe. They believe that some spending on education is wasteful (for instance, that subsidizing college education helps drive up tuition), and they believe that some financial regulations do more harm than good. This is also "failed policies" rhetoric.

"Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can't do everything, it should do almost nothing. If you can't afford health insurance, hope that you don't get sick. If a company releases toxic pollution into the air your children breathe, well, that's just the price of progress. If you can't afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent's advice and "borrow money from your parents.""
Comment: This is also a caricature. Republicans don't believe that government should do "almost nothing", that you should just hope you don't get sick if you don't have health insurance, that air pollution is just something you should put up with, or that if you need money you should borrow it from your parents. It's a caricature of the same sort as if someone were to say that Democrats don't believe people should pay anything for their own food, clothes, housing, or health care, that Democrats say it doesn't matter how many jobs are lost due to environmental regulations, or that Democrats say you should only rely on government for help and never on yourself or your family.

"You know what? That's not who we are. That's not what this country's about. As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights -- rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system -- the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known. But we also believe in something called citizenship -- a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations. … We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense."
Comment: Republicans don't believe in citizenship? They don't believe that we have obligations to one another and to future generations? Of course they believe that, they just disagree about how much of a role government should play in fulfilling those obligations. Obama is derisively distorting Republicans. Also, Obama seems to be implying that Republicans aren't real Americans or are somehow unpatriotic.

"But we don't think that government is the source of all our problems -- any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we're told to blame for our troubles."
Comment: This is another derisive caricature. Republicans don't believe that government is the source of all our problems any more than Democrats believe that government is the solution to all our problems. Nor do Republicans believe that welfare recipients, immigrants, etc., are the source of all our problems.

"If you reject the notion that this nation's promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election. … if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November."
Comment: These are platitudes. Of course, we all believe that "America's promise" (whatever it is) should be for everyone, not just the few. However, Republicans and Democrats disagree about what policies do the best job of creating equal opportunity. And we all want fairness, we just disagree about what constitutes fairness and about which policies will attain it. To say otherwise is just derisive caricature.

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