Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Civility Watchdog: President Barack Obama's Victory Speech

On November 7, 2012, President Barack Obama addressed his supporters while declaring victory in his race against Republican candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) [CNN Transcript, RCP Video]. Below are some of the highlights concerning civil, productive debate:
I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign.We may have battled fiercely, but it's only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future.
Comment: What does Obama mean when he says the campaign was "fierce"? And is he correct that "love of country" excuses that fierceness? My concern is that Obama is using "fierce" as a euphemism for "lacking in civility, dignity, and respect". Both Obama and Romney have resorted to incivility in the 2012 presidential election -- name-calling and distortion, demonizing, etc. Such behavior is unacceptable, and "love of country" is no excuse for it. If you care about something, you have an obligation to treat it with care. Treating the country with care means upholding civil debate, and discussing the political issues the nation faces without resorting to incivility.

In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.
Comment: This is "unify the country" rhetoric. Will Obama admit and apologize for his acts of name-calling in order create an environment where both sides can "work together to move this country forward"? Will Romney?

Let me say this publicly: Michelle, I have never loved you more. I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation's first lady.
Comment: This is "Americans want" rhetoric. Does the entire country love Michelle Obama? Aren't there some who dislike her, or are simply indifferent to her?

I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics that tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests.
Comment: This is typical rhetoric about civility, in the sense that Obama is lamenting incivility in the abstract without owning up specifically to his own failings with respect to civil debate. Politicians and pundits frequently speak about civility in a way that leaves people with the impression that they themselves aren't part of the problem, that it's someone else who has to clean up their act (the "only my opponents" caricature). That's one of the reasons people are so cynical about politics in general and the possibility for civil debate in particular. Also, Obama himself has frequently railed against "special interests", but here it sounds like he's dismissing the influence of special interests.

That's why we do this. That's what politics can be. That's why elections matter. It's not small, it's big. It's important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.
Comment: What does Obama mean by "noisy and messy and complicated"? Or by stirring "passions" and "controversy"? Again, my concern is he's using these as euphemisms, as another way of saying the campaign was uncivil. If that's what he's saying, he's right, it was an uncivil presidential campaign. And that is partly (though by no means entirely) his fault, and there is no excuse for it, and he's not making any apology for contributing to the incivility in the political arena.

But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America's future. ... That's the vision we share. That's where we need to go -- forward. That's where we need to go. Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. ... By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.
Comment: Obama is correct that we frequently share the same goals but differ about which policies will do the best job of achieving those goals. (In other words, we often have the same moral priorities but disagree on empirical matters.) That's part of the problem with name-calling, because name-calling often amounts to distorting the people who disagree with you and making them out to be people who don't share the same values, describing them as people don't care about doing what's right. Again, in this speech, Obama isn't owning up to his misbehavior on that front. Will he any time soon? It's hard to see how people will get along with one another if the people who've caricatured them and mocked them refuse to apologize for doing so. Will Obama happily get along with Republicans who have demonized him, even if they don't apologize for it?

And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. ... I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We're not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.
Comment: This is more "unify the country" rhetoric. We've long been the country that Obama describes, yet incivility persists. What will be different now? What is it that's going to change things and make us less divided? A newfound, self-critical commitment to civil debate? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

No comments: