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Obama's plea for civility is exactly right

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • John P. Avlon says President Obama's speech Saturday was an important call for civil discourse
  • He says the media tends to polarize issues for profit
  • Avlon says politicians have picked up on hyper-partisanship and are feeding the extremes

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of the new book, "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- We don't listen to each other anymore.

It's not just a complaint in relationships -- it's a fair characterization of the state of our national political debate. The bond between fellow American citizens is being weakened by screaming and suspicion.

That's why President Obama's commencement address at the University of Michigan this past weekend is worth contemplating.

It was a call for civility rooted in American history; a challenge to the bitter and predictable partisanship that is afflicting our country. It was a timely reminder that the success of the American experiment depends on every generation being able to reason together in the pursuit of solving our common problems.

Right now, even a speech by the president of the United States is considered suspect by committed partisans -- actually listening is not as satisfying as reinforcing a play-to-the-base political narrative.

For journalists, a speech is not news unless there is a scandal. Attack ads, process stories and gotcha politics too often trump substance and analysis. As the president said, "The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story, which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible."

This is true. There is an editorial undertow in media that rewards the most extreme ideological voices. This is polarizing for profit under the banner of political principle.

It is the specialty of partisan talk radio hosts who get high ratings from intense niche audiences by cultivating conflict, tension and resentment. But what can be good for ratings might also be bad for the country.

This destructive dynamic has now crossed over into politicians who -- aided by the rigged system of redistricting -- follow the exaggerated play-to-the-base model instead of trying to form broad coalitions and winning over the reasonable edge of the opposition.

It is also true, of course, that we have had brutal partisan battles throughout our history. One notable radioactive nugget the president referenced cited was when "a newspaper of the opposing party once editorialized that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, 'Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced.' "

But there is a deeper tradition of debates beyond demonizing people who disagree with you, which the president described this way: "We've been fighting about the proper size and role of government since the day the framers gathered in Philadelphia. We've battled over the meaning of individual freedom and equality since the Bill of Rights was drafted."

These debates are profound and important -- they are philosophical, not personal. President Obama framed the competing claims as representing twin strands of our national DNA.

First, the skepticism of government intrusion that comes from our war of independence from the British. Second, the recognition that "there are some things we can only do together, as one nation -- and that our government must keep pace with the times."

From this strand comes everything from government assistance in building the transcontinental railroad to the national highway system. But false choices between the all-or-nothing extremes are inevitably both wrong and impractical. The best articulation of the right balance came from a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said the proper role of government is to do what individuals cannot do for themselves.

In recent decades, we learned that the excesses of government action, however well-intentioned, can have counterproductive results. For example, President Obama owned up to the fact that "For many years, we had a welfare system that too often discouraged people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility."

But increasingly we've become entrenched in old dichotomies that don't fit the challenges we face: "We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt. But we've also clearly seen the dangers of too little government -- like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy." You can add to that calls for greater government action in the wake of the devastating oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

Policies are reflexively supported or opposed based on the party of the president who proposes them.
--John P. Avlon

Our political debates are filtered through a hyper-partisan prism where scoring political points is more important than solving problems. Policies are reflexively supported or opposed based on the party of the president who proposes them. This is not just intellectually dishonest; it leads to logical absurdities like the protest sign "Government -- Get Your Hands off my Medicare." Which leads me to quote two of the key paragraphs of the speech in full:

"We can't 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 somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. 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.

"Now, we've seen this kind of politics in the past. It's been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation's birth. But it's starting to creep into the center of our discourse. ... 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 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, the one 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."

These are the stakes -- and this is what politicians have forgotten by pumping up fear and hate in the service of narrow partisan gain. It is what we enable in the media when we polarize for profit. It causes us to forget a fundamental truth that our democracy depends upon -- the understanding that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us.

"When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us," as the president said. "We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny." It is a shared responsibility.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.