What Divides Us

By now you might have read what Dick Cheney said to Hugh Hewitt this week about President Obama. When I heard about it I struggled with whether to react or simply dismiss it as just more nonsense coming from the lunatics in the Republican Party. There are times when even acknowledging this kind of ugliness actually seems to give life to it as something worth discussing rather than treat it as the trash that it is. But then Jay Bookman wrote a response that I think gets at the heart of what we need to say about it.

In an interview this week, talk show host Hugh Hewitt asked former Vice President Dick Cheney whether President Obama was being naive in his approach toward Iran. Cheney chose a different explanation:

“I vacillate between the various theories I’ve heard, but you know, if you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down, who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world and reduce our capacity to influence events, turn our back on our allies and encourage our adversaries, it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing.”

In more rational times, in fact in almost any other time in American history, the suggestion that a U.S. president is willfully attempting to undermine the country from within — that he in fact is committing treason — would disqualify the speaker from further serious discourse…

It is also hard to imagine previous generations of Republican leaders publicly suggesting such a thing about a sitting American president. Those times are gone, however, and Cheney is hardly an isolated example of that fact. To the contrary, the former vice president is expressing and validating a strong undercurrent in modern GOP politics that attempts to delegitemize its opponents and thus warp the entire democratic process…

Typically, the same people who peddle such nonsense will then turn around and accuse Obama of being a divisive president, as if Obama is responsible for the paranoia that is running through their synapses…

It would be nice to be able to brush such craziness aside as inconsequential, but it is not. For democracy to work, it requires a deep and mutual understanding among all parties that while we differ on the details, we’re at least all acting in good faith. The other side may be misinformed, dumb, incompetent or any number of things, but we at least have to allow that they are patriotic in their mistakes. And while that good-faith understanding will get bruised from time to time in the rugby scrum that is self-governance, it remains essential.

What Cheney said is the very definition of a “dog whistle.” He doesn’t have to bring up President Obama’s race. He knows that a statement like that taps in to the racism of his listeners and that it validates for them that “he’s not one of us.” At that point, it becomes unnecessary to discuss policies in the particular because no matter what Obama does, it is – at its root – a dangerous attempt to “take America down.” And so rather than the back-and-forth of political discourse where reasonable people disagree, this President becomes a threat to our country’s survival.

Bookman is right to lay the blame for our widening polarization squarely at the feet of such statements from people like the former Vice President of the United States. It was one thing when the rabble rousers in the Tea Party questioned his place of birth. But when Republican leaders like Cheney and Giuliani join the fray, it tears at the fabric of what is essential to our democratic processes.

Today, the editorial board of the New York Times suggests that we’ve entered “A New Phase in Anti-Obama Attacks.”

Republican lawmakers in Washington and around the country have been focused on blocking Mr. Obama’s agenda and denigrating him personally since the day he took office in 2009. But even against that backdrop, and even by the dismal standards of political discourse today, the tone of the current attacks is disturbing. So is their evident intent — to undermine not just Mr. Obama’s policies, but his very legitimacy as president.

It is a line of attack that echoes Republicans’ earlier questioning of Mr. Obama’s American citizenship. Those attacks were blatantly racist in their message — reminding people that Mr. Obama was black, suggesting he was African, and planting the equally false idea that he was secretly Muslim. The current offensive is slightly more subtle, but it is impossible to dismiss the notion that race plays a role in it…

If this insurrection is driven by something other than a blend of ideological extremism and personal animosity, it is not clear what that might be. But it is ugly, it deepens mistrust of government and it harms the office of the president, not just Mr. Obama.

This is exactly why President Obama devoted time during his State of the Union speech this year to talking about a better politics.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes…

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives…

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

Ultimately Dick Cheney and other Republicans are free to say whatever they want to about President Obama. I doubt any of us has the power to change that. But we need to be clear about the cost of giving this kind of rhetoric credence in our public discourse. Much more than any political differences we may have, it is what divides us.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .