President Obama is about to speak at the Democratic National Convention. I don’t want to listen to him. Romney gave his acceptance speech last week. I didn’t want to listen to him, either. As I told my daughter this evening, we want political parties to give us candidates we feel are worthy of our vote, leaders who deserve our loyalty. The candidates these two parties produce speak for themselves.
Alright, I went to listen to part of Obama’s speech after I wrote the paragraph above. I shouldn’t have done it, I know. The man is too smart not to know what he’s doing when delivers a speech like that. A nominee’s main job in an acceptance speech is to rally the party faithful, to make them enthusiastic for the campaign ahead. Obama succeeded.
Did you see what else he did? He talked so feelingly about we, citizens of the United States, who have obligations toward each other because we all stand or fall together. At the same time he mocked, vilified, and spoke with contempt about people who disagree with him and his party. He pretends to be the one to lead a united country; his path to unity is to make enemies of half the country – the half that opposes him. Of course, that’s one way to rally the faithful: make enemies of your opponents. To pretend you’re not doing that even as you do it – that’s cynical.
Who don’t the Democrats like? Pretty much anyone they decide isn’t one of them. Wall Street bankers, health insurance companies, anyone with too much money who doesn’t want to give it to the government, anyone who thinks government has too much power, anyone who calls himself a Republican. All of you are not one of us, he says. All of you are not worthy of the title citizen. In fact, your very presence in this country brings dishonor to the concept of citizenship. That was the animating idea beneath Obama’s rhetoric: if you’re with us, if you agree with us, welcome to the American family of people who care for one another. If you’re not with us, we will call you villains, scoundrels, people unworthy of citizenship in this great country we have built.
As I said, to rally your folks around the ideas you share as you prepare to go against your opponents – that’s why you deliver an acceptance speech. To suggest over and over that your opponents are villains or fools, to mocked them as poor citizens or greedy, inept fat cats – to do all of that while you preach unity and the power of community to accomplish good things – that’s more cynicism than I would have expected even from an individual like Barack Obama. I shouldn’t criticize him personally, though. Sitting in that office for four years probably does that to you. Even your ideals become caustic.