The death of civil discourse?

On Aug. 27, I appeared on the Fox News program “The O’Reilly Factor” to discuss President Obama’s legacy. Another guest, conservative author Jane Hammond Cook, began by claiming that Obama would be ranked among the bottom 15 or 20 of presidents.

In response, I made the following points: You cannot judge a president’s legacy during his term because evaluations change drastically over time. Harry Truman’s approval ratings sank to 22 percent during his last year in office — about half of Obama’s current ratings. Truman was reviled in his time, but scholars today generally regard him as a near-great president.

{mosads}I did not attempt prematurely to rank Obama overall, but noted that whether you agree with his policies or not, he already is the most consequential Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. In the limited time available, I cited two examples. First, Obama’s efforts to preserve the auto industry and the financial system and his nearly $1 trillion stimulus program likely kept the terrible economy he inherited from an even more disastrous meltdown. I cited studies in support of this view.

Second, with the Affordable Health Care Act, Obama achieved a goal that had eluded numerous presidents of both parties for more than 60 years. Over time, I said it was likely that the act would achieve the goals of insuring many additional millions of Americans and slowing down rising healthcare costs despite every effort by Obama’s political opposition to destroy the act. The Affordable Care Act, I noted, was the only major social legislation in the history of the country enacted without a single vote from the opposition party.

These are hardly extreme or radical views. They are of course eminently debatable points and debate them we did, quite civilly on the “Factor.” Then came the deluge of emails, phone calls and tweets. The vast majority of these missives were hateful, poisonous, and personal. You would think I had just called for the violent overthrow of our civilization. 

Here are just a few examples of the personal attacks my O’Reilly appearance elicited; comments that denied my right even to have an opinion. One university official recommended that I contact our public safety unit, but as you can see the comments are more pathetic and laughable than threatening. Prepare to enter the theater of the absurd:

Allan Lichtman: perfect example of communist on tv, come on, no more commies, they should get no press.

Your trucking poodleism of Obama is nauseating.

You are just another Obama sucker. Your degrees mean nothing, you can get them at MC Donald with a kiddy bag. So sad that tax dollars are wasted on you.

PhD? in what? idiots r us.

Regurgitating garbage. Don’t you make yourself sick.

Does he live in the U.S.? Lives in loonville.

A mindless idiot.

A total a–clown.

An educated moron.

A glittering jewel of colossal ignorance.

As pathetic as these personal attacks may be, they still go a long way to explaining why our politics today is polarized and dysfunctional. In fact, no civilization can thrive without civil discourse that recognizes the legitimacy of our diverse points of view.

I can only hope that my revelation of these venomous, if ridiculous, personal attacks will lead to more respectful, constructive dialogue among those with differing ideas. Spirited debate is essential to a healthy democracy, but as Gerald Ford said, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

To this end, we would do well to consider guidelines for civil discourse proposed by Charles Camosy, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, which I paraphrase as follows.

  • Humility: We all are flawed and make mistakes and should be open to someone challenging our point of view.
  • Listening and respecting: We should give others the courtesy of actually responding to their ideas and arguments rather than destroying them personally. We may have something to learn from a contrary viewpoint.
  • Avoiding binary thinking: The issues of our time are too important and complex to put into simplistic “us versus them” antagonisms.
  • Avoiding dismissive words and phrases: It might feel good to score these rhetorical points, but that is how dialogue becomes polarized and destructive. Hatefulness only divides us and never brings us together.
  • Leading with what you are for: We can forcefully say what we believe without belittling others. We might even find some ground on which we can agree.

The comments on this column will give some indication of whether we continue the post-O’Reilly diatribes or follow Camosy’s path to civil discourse. Let’s hear from you.

This piece has been corrected from a previous version.

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.

Tags Barack Obama Charles Camosy civil discourse comments presidential legacy The O'Reilly Factor
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