“And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
Robert F. Kennedy speaking shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination
The man who will soon be the Republican candidate for president of the United States has diagnosed what ails the country in the 21st Century. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Donald Trump said during one of the shouting matches that passed for debates during the primary season. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
Surveys tell us Trump has hit a nerve. Across the political spectrum Republicans, Democrats, independents agree that “political correctness” is a big problem even if, as I suspect, most Americans would have trouble defining the term. Political correctness is the problem for all seasons, an all purpose explanation for any position that someone else holds that you find disagreeable.
As with most things he says Trump has misdiagnosed “the big problem.” And the misdiagnosis is glaringly apparent in the roiling wake of post-July 4th America. America’s diverse culture – a nation of immigrants – with class, racial, educational and wealth disparities doesn’t really suffer from an over abundance of political correctness, but rather the illness is a deficit of essential civility and engaged citizenship. Our challenge, as the distinguished scholar Danielle Allen says, is reflect on our own history to find how diverse individuals live together in a shared public life.
To put a fine point on it: way too many Americans are ignorant of how their government really works and woefully deficient in understanding the country’s history and how that history informs and effects what is happening today. It is nothing less than a national crisis.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been a voice in the wilderness trying to arouse a new American commitment to civic education. “In over half the states in the union, civics education is not required,” O’Connor told the Washington Post in 2012. “The only reason we have public school education in America is because in the early days of the country, our leaders thought we had to teach our young generation about citizenship … that obligation never ends. If we don’t take every generation of young people and make sure they understand that they are an essential part of government, we won’t survive. We don’t teach our own kids. It’s insane.”
It is insane. And if you think about it O’Connor’s point helps explain a lot about the current state of American democracy. When Trump says he is going to “build a wall” and a foreign country will pay for it or when Bernie Sanders promises health care for all, a well-informed, civically-aware American says, “hold on. How you goin’ do that?” The informed voter might well ask: What is the role of Congress in getting that done? Can you bring along the other side? What will it cost? Do you know even what you are talking about?
Politicians have always made grand and unrealistic promises, but voters should be well enough grounded in civic reality to reel in the truth and discount the blarney. Hard to do if you don’t have the basic understanding of how government works.
Trump’s utterly fanciful claim that he can eliminate the national debt in eight years, while slashing taxes is a good illustration of the disconnect between what a candidate says and what politics and reality allow. As Politico reported, “Trump’s budget and policy proposals have resonated with the Republican base, even if elements of his plan run entirely counter to conservative economic orthodoxy. But taken together, they are a series of puzzle pieces that just don’t fit into a coherent whole, according to experts on both sides of the aisle.”
Translation: May sound good, cannot happen. To reach the goal of eliminating the national debt in eight years, Trump would need to slash all federal spending by two-thirds. No serious person believes that could either happen or should happen. The economy would tank and the political and economic dislocation would be enormous.
“I don’t know that he’s really taken the time to understand the complexities of some of these areas of policy,” Lanhee Chen, policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution told Politico. “I am concerned about that.”
Former Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said it even more bluntly in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “Trump repeatedly, blatantly and knowingly makes up or gravely distorts facts to support his positions or create populist divisions…Simply put, a Trump presidency is unthinkable.”
But to make those judgments requires a working knowledge of government and how budget and fiscal decisions are made. An engaged citizen doesn’t need Hank Paulson’s experience, but they do need to know more than Donald Trump does. Far too many don’t.
Mom would not have tolerated this guy…
The other foundational piece to a better informed and engaged citizenry represents, not surprisingly perhaps, the antithesis of what the GOP nominee has been offering for months. When Trump fumes against “political correctness” what he is really rejecting is what my mother would have called “civility.” Or simply being nice, respectful, courteous. Making an attempt to understand the other person’s perspective.
Insulting women, repeatedly referring to a United States senator as Pocahontas, constantly referring to your opponents as “liars” or “crooks” or “low energy” is not politically incorrect it is rude, vulgar and beneath the playground taunts of a junior high school bully let alone a presidential candidate. Imagine – I hope you can only imagine – such language at your dinner table or work place. Few would tolerate it simply because its wrong, hateful and mean. Who can really argue that these are the characteristics we should encourage or value in our leaders.
The presidential campaign of 2016 will be remembered for many things not least, I suspect, a further coarsening of our already raw political dialogue. The Donald Trumps of the world must be kept at the political fringes. They are in no way representative of what Lincoln so rightly called “the better angels of our nature.”
An essential responsibility of leadership, whether in the corporate boardroom or the Oval Office is to educate, explain, to empathize and illuminate rather than divide, degrade and preach a politics of despair and hatred.
In a brilliant and also shocking piece of political reporting, the New York Times Nick Confessore honed in on the connections between citizenship and civility and how Trump, in the name of disowning political correctness, has broken something that will be hard to mend.
“In the months since Mr. Trump began his campaign, the percentage of Americans who say race relations are worsening has increased, reaching nearly half in an April poll by CBS News. The sharpest rise was among Republicans: Sixty percent said race relations were getting worse,” Confessore writes. Trace that increase directly to the Republican nominee.
And Confessore continues: “And Mr. Trump’s rise is shifting the country’s racial discourse just as the millennial generation comes fully of age, more and more distant from the horrors of the Holocaust, or the government-sanctioned racism of Jim Crow.” This is the intersection between coarseness and lack of civility and the American citizenship deficit.
The Better Angels of Our Nature…
President Obama tried to remind us this week what America should be about, what it could be about. In a moment of profound national distress the nation’s first non-white president appealed to our better angels. He was, of course, immediately criticized and critics continue to offer the fiction that the president is “anti-police,” still Obama’s words demand our attention, demand that we reflect, not merely react.
“In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work,” Obama said. “It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change.
“Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.
I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this.
“But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’
“That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”
That open heart begins with genuine civility and new commitment by each of us to real engaged and informed citizenship.