By Robert Nagel
Former President Trump has long been condemned – and deservedly so – for his inflammatory rhetoric. His accusation that Democrats stole the last presidential election is just the latest in a long line of dangerous, inaccurate and sometimes ugly claims. But condemning Trump’s pomposity, however justified, is too easy.
It’s too easy in that focusing on Trump encourages the belief that irresponsible political language is the product of the personality deficiencies of particular individuals. If this were true, bloated, nasty political language would not be prevalent, almost normal, in our political culture. But we all know it is.
Consider President Biden’s recent emphatic insistence that opponents of proposed voting reform measures are on the side of Jefferson Davis, Bull Connor and George Wallace. And this is not an isolated case. It’s an incendiary way to lay the now routine accusation that millions of Americans who oppose the Democratic agenda are violent racists.
There are of course many explanations for this state of affairs. There is truth in all of them, but they have the convenient flaw of avoiding us seeing the profound insult we direct at all those who resort to cheap and exaggerated political arguments.
A common explanation is that we are a deeply divided nation. It is true that we have many different moral positions and aspirations, and it is undeniable that such differences can lead to dangerous rhetoric and even physical violence. But it is implicit in this explanation that people are not to blame. It is these divisions! Since deep disagreements are a fact of life, all meanness is to be expected.
Another explanation is that technology forces us to do so. It’s social media! As if the computer world were our collective identity, that dark Freudian place where wickedness springs up and then overwhelms our conscious lives. Again, true, but why do so many activists and political leaders fail to civilize these impulses once they come to light?
A third explanation is more philosophical. Probably due to the widespread availability of higher education, it is said that many Americans in high positions no longer really believe that objective truths exist. This post-modernist sophistication means, it is said, that normal intellectual standards no longer apply. Power is all there is, and any type of argument that can prevail can be used. According to this view, there is nothing to regret about the deplorable state of our political discourse unless the camp you are on either fails to successfully use nasty rhetorical devices or foolishly tries to adhere civilized standards of public discourse.
Here is a possible explanation that puts ordinary citizens back in the picture: Perhaps a significant reason for the miserable state of our political discourse is that too many of our leaders have lost respect for us, the people to whom they talk and they try to lead. . Trying to persuade, rather than intimidate, requires respect. Respect means that the listener has intellectual space to assess claims, raise doubts, and revise or reject arguments.
Notice that the contempt behind the urge to intimidate is not directed only at those who are reviled. The speaker’s political allies are also looked down upon when rhetoric is designed to prevent them from evaluating and qualifying the claims made. So if we awaken to some sort of secret delight when our political opponents are vilified or when outrageously exaggerated claims are made, we need to step back and remember that it is precisely for this reason that our leaders disrespect us.
Robert Nagel is a retired law professor who lives in Boulder.