Saying that fiery anti-government rhetoric embraced by Americans on both sides of the political divide "closes the door ... on compromise," President Obama today urged Americans to try harder to understand their political foes.
Speaking at the University of Michigan commencement address in Ann Arbor, Obama urged fans of Fox News' Glenn Beck to pop on over to the Huffington Post once in a while. Or put aside the New York Times for a second and check out the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
"It may make your blood boil," the President said, according to remarks made available to the press before the speech. "Your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship."
The national narrative in the media and political circles over today's political rhetoric has focused largely on whether angry statements from right-wing conservatives are bordering on sedition. But while thousands of tea party protesters have peaceably assembled – some legally wearing firearms – attempts to cool the flames by prominent politicians like Obama can have an unintended consequence: further alienating those who feel they have no voice in the political system.
To be sure, Obama has worked to open up the political process – a key to empowering citizens. Today, he urged the passage of the Disclose Act, which would force secretive campaign funders to show their face on political attack ads.
But University of Texas-Austin communications professor Dana Cloud, an expert on political activism, says that equally dangerous as fiery partisan rhetoric is when officials or politicians, by policy or even social pressure, try to impose civility on political protest.
"Uncivil behavior is not unconstitutional," she says. "Defining heckling, for instance, as censorship or any act of incivility as violence is bizarre."
She points to both Joe Stack, who attacked an IRS office in an airplane, and Sam Byck, who attempted to hijack a plane to fly it into the Nixon White House, as examples of people on the margin who, in their writings, expressed frustration with an inability to get their political arguments into the open. In his manifesto, Mr. Byck wrote that he "felt like a grain of sand on an endless beach."
Conservatives dispute that they've cornered the market on rhetoric in the last year, pointing out that liberals' hands are far from clean when it comes to political hyperbole.
While Rep. Michelle Bachmann has urged Americans to become "armed and dangerous" to fight back against a proposed cap-and-trade bill, conservatives cite snippets of Obama speeches where the President in the past has urged supporters to "punch back twice as hard" and "bring a gun to a knife fight," a statement he made during the election campaign.
One expert on the history of political violence says passionate street protest is one of the most effective safety valves society can offer at a chaotic time.
"The fact is, everybody is destabilized economically and marginalized politically, so the last thing you can do is take to the streets," says Thomas Palaima, a classics professor at the University of Texas-Austin. "The question is, if things are polarized as they now are … and people feel so marginalized and nothing-ized, made into nothing in society, then have we really passed the point to get back to polite political discourse?"
For his part, Obama didn't name names or urge a crackdown on political passion. In essence, he said, "America, take a deep breath ... then go over and talk to your neighbor."
"Phrases like 'socialist' and 'Soviet-style takeover,' 'fascist' and 'right-wing nut' may grab headlines," but such language "closes the door to the possibility of compromise," Obama said. He added that American politics "has never been for the thin-skinned or the faint of heart. ... If you enter the arena, you should expect to get roughed up."