Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin had great fun – and made political hay – last week by ridiculing Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer. They did so by ridiculing community organizing itself. Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Obama noted that such work matters to the people whose lives are affected by it. Governor Palin continued the ridicule as she hit the campaign trail.
I want to use this example of political rhetoric to raise an issue that’s been much on my mind these days (and that comes up in my entry a few weeks back, “Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote”): The need to think about political speech as an occasion to educate. Bill Clinton is masterful at doing this, and it characterizes some of our country’s best political oratory.
It is common wisdom among political commentators that campaigns are run and won on emotion and symbolism much more so than on reason, logic, and policy analysis.
True enough. We see it big time in both parties.
But in accepting this unfortunate fact, we also sustain it. Our politicians miss untold opportunities to teach as well as to move and inspire – and as I write this I catch myself at an implied separation, for good instruction can also inspire. And facts can stir emotion, for example a statistic on the number of children in the United States who live in poverty.
So let’s return to that jab at community organizing. Giuliani and Palin gave rise to an opportunity for the Obama camp (although I don’t think they did this) to point out quickly, plainly that a number of rights and benefits that protect working people have come from organizing efforts; that Christians of many stripes have been integral to them; that organizing is as American as apple pie; that, as my friend Fred Erickson pointed out in a letter he wrote to Governor Palin, the Governor’s very civic life and political career would have been impossible without the organizing efforts of feminists three or four generations ago. A statement like this would counter as well as instruct, creating a public teachable moment.
So much of our political discourse is so awful that it’s hard to find room in it for civic pedagogy. But, and I know this smacks of innocence, I do believe in a variation of “if you build it, they will come.” Americans respond powerfully to red-meat politics, but it is also true that once the balloons drop and the pulse returns to normal, people want a few facts, want to be spoken to as though they have brains in their heads, want to cut the bullshit.
The writers of the federal No Child Left Behind Act decry what they call “the soft bigotry of low expectations” about the intellectual capacity of poor children. Wouldn’t it be something if our political speechmakers began raising their expectations for the rest of us?