President Obama has made a welcome contribution to the US Presidential Primaries campaign, calling on everyone to help to reverse the cycle of vulgar and divisive rhetoric, attempts to shut down public debate, and actual violence.
In what could almost be a satirical response to the President’s message, The Young Turks media outlet, which could well rename itself The Yelling Turks, then misrepresented Obama, and repeatedly yelled at him while misrepresenting him further.
I would rather see either Democratic candidate win the Presidency. I would rather see Trump win than his Republican rivals, because Trump is more liberal and less idealogical than the alternatives, despite his harmful campaign tactics.
But whatever the ideology of the candidates, I want to see positive and constructive politics, based on the fundamental ethical values of reason, empathy, compassion, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness and justice.
And I want to see pundits who share those values, including broadly liberal media outlets such as The Young Turks, to reflect those values in their commentary instead of intensifying the corrosive and vicious atmosphere that others have generated.
What President Obama said
Here’s what President Obama said this week, at a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration event. I haven’t found a full transcript, so some of the transcript below is pieced together from various media sources. But the main points are directly quoted from the above video extract.
“In my State of the Union address, I remarked that many of you have told me that you would like to see more cooperation and more a elevated debate in Washington, but everyone feels sometimes trapped by their politics.
I understand that feeling. I have served with many of you in Congress, and so I know that I’m not the only one in this room who may be more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail lately.
We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities, at Americans who don’t look like us or pray like us or vote like we do. We’ve seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech. However offensive it may be, we live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold. In response to those attempts, we’ve seen actual violence. And we’ve heard silence from too many of our leaders.
Speaker Ryan, I appreciate the words on this topic that you shared with us this morning, but too often, we’ve accepted this as somehow the new normal. And it’s worth asking ourselves what each of us may have done to contribute to this kind of vicious atmosphere in our politics. I suspect all of can recall some intemperate words that we regret. Certainly, I can.
And while some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, all of us are responsible for reversing it. For it is a cycle that is not an accurate reflection of America. And it has to stop. And I say that, not because it’s a matter of political correctness, it’s about the way the corrosive behaviour can undermine our democracy and our society and even our economy.
In America, there aren’t laws that say that we have to be nice to each other or courteous or treat each other with respect. But there are norms. There are customs. There are values that our parents taught us and that we try to teach to our children: to try to treat others the way that we want to be treated. The notion that kindness breeds kindness.
Allowing the darker side of politics to continue creates a permission structure that allows the animosity in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society. Parents should not be afraid to take their children to political rallies or to watch political debates on television.
When we leave this lunch I think we have a choice. We can condone this race to the bottom or accept it as the way things are and sink further — or we can roundly reject this kind of behaviour, whether we see it in the other party or more importantly, when we see it in our own party, and set a better example for our children and the rest of the country to follow.
I reject any effort to spread fear or encourage violence or to shut people down when they’re trying to speak. Or turn Americans against one another. And I think as a citizen, I will not support somebody who supports that kind of politics.
Speaker Ryan, you and I don’t agree on a lot of policy, but I know you are a great father and a great husband and I know you want what’s best for America. The point is, we can have political debates without turning on one another, we can disagree without assuming that it’s motivated by malice.”
How The Young Turks misrepresented Obama
The Young Turks then misrepresented Obama’s speech by claiming that he had blamed everybody equally for these developments. After analysing some partisan and misleading commentary by Fox News, the relevant extracts about Obama start at 1 minute 8 seconds.
“Okay, so look, Fox News is insane, you know that, so I’m not surprised when they say that our Republican nominee, or presumptive nominee at this point, inciting people to riot, which he did recently, saying hey there’ll be riots at the convention if I don’t win, that’s Obama’s fault. Okay, that’s not surprising. What’s maddening is Obama’s reaction to this, right, so not this particular clip but to the overall situation. Donald Trump’s having his supporters thump people, drag people around, knock them down, do all these things. And who is President Obama going to blame? He’s actually going to split it down the middle. Don’t do that! Watch, watch…”
“We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities, at Americans who don’t look like us or pray like us or vote like we do. We’ve seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech. However offensive it may be, we live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold. In response to those attempts, we’ve seen actual violence.”
“This is not the time to call it even. I’m with you, don’t overshout people so that they can’t speak, I’ve said that a thousand times. Don’t do anything physical. Those things are obvious. But THAT’S NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING!! You might find one isolated incident, like the protester who bum rushed the stage at a Trump rally, that’s totally unacceptable, I get it, but IT’S NOT 50/50! THE OVERWHELMING NUMBER OF CASES IS WHEN TRUMP SUPPORTERS ARE ASSAULTING THE PROTESTERS! It’s not helpful when the Democratic President says, well, it’s a little bit of Trump, and a little bit of the progressives who don’t like hum. He does it again in this clip. Just watch…
“Too often, we’ve accepted this as somehow the new normal. And it’s worth asking ourselves what each of us may have done to contribute to the vicious atmosphere in our politics. I suspect all of can recall some intemperate words we regret. Certainly, I can. And while some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, all of us are responsible for reversing it.”
No, no, wait a minute, I’m not responsible for Trump’s fascism! I didn’t do that! The protesters didn’t do that! And President Obama, YOU DIDN’T DO THAT!!! You didn’t do any of that! And when Fox News blames you for it, and then you turn around and go well, I guess there’s violence, I guess we’re all equally culpable, well, YOU’RE HELPING THEM WITH THEIR INSANE TALKING POINT!!!!!! TRUMP IS THE ONE SAYING THUMP THEM IN THE FACE!!! I’LL PAY THEIR LEGAL BILLS!!! WE’RE GOING TO RIOT IF THEY DON’T GIVE ME THE NOMINATION!!! IT’S NOT 50/50!!!!!!!!! STOP IT!!!!!!!! And then the media looks at that and goes, oh, Obama called it 50/50, so Obama and the Democrats must be responsible for Trump’s fascism!!! UUUHHHH!!!!!! (thumps desk in anger.)
Let’s park for a moment that The Young Turks are also misrepresenting Donald Trump, who is not a fascist and who did not say ‘we’re going to riot if they don’t give me the nomination.’ It would take another article to properly analyse Trump’s harmful campaign tactics and the counterproductive responses to them.
But there is no excuse for the Young Turks to misrepresent what Obama said. It was clear to any reasonable listener, even given the restraints on a sitting President analysing a Presidential election campaign in partisan detail.
Firstly, Obama did not suggest that the violence was 50/50.
He specifically said it was a response to the attempts to shut down the hostile rhetoric. The people who are attempting to shut down hostile rhetoric are mostly the protesters at Trump rallies. So Obama was saying that the actual violence was a response to the protesters, not a behaviour of the protesters.
Secondly, Obama did not suggest that everybody was equally responsible for the current climate.
He specifically said that some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, but that all of us are responsible for reversing it. That is undeniably true. And a good start to helping to reverse the climate would be for liberal media outlets to be more rational and less shouty.
Thirdly, and most significantly, Obama is not ‘the Democratic President’.
He is the President of the United States. He is a President for all of the people, regardless of their political affiliations. And he is acting here in that capacity, responsibly and appropriately.