The whirlwind of today’s politics is exhausting and demoralizing. I am emotionally drained by the relentless storm of acrimony and dismayed by its destructive force. What is there left to say in the face of all of this? Many of us share a sense of anomie. Political talk is unmoored to democratic values.
The swirl of political communication is frenetic. We read distractedly in this digital age, observes Joe Moran. We skim; we don’t read anything that’s too long. We ingest information rapidly; we write and read urgently; we harvest quick bursts of words and images. “Perhaps,” Moran suggests, “we should slow down.”
Slowing down means more listening and reflecting, more quiet absorption of what is said and written. Writing, Moran observes, “is a rhetorical exercise in pace, rhythm, tone, texture and voice . . . . It can only be fully understood by immersing oneself in the words and their slow unraveling of a line of thought . . . . Slow reading is a gradual encounter with the obdurate otherness of another person’s mind.”
Indeed, the whirlwind of tweets and memes is not conducive to engaging another person’s otherness. Fortunately, our fast-paced digital world presents us with opportunities to read political messages slowly and thoughtfully, indeed, more opportunities than are taken. While our digital habit is to reduce full texts to dramatic headlines, soundbites, quick précis, takeaways, and emojis, and granted that hyperlinks encourage us to jump around between texts, our ability to browse the internet enables us to locate, download, and markup full texts rather easily. We can even print them if we prefer reading and marking up hard copies of full texts. The internet can facilitate slow-thoughtful-analytical-critical-immersive reading, if we wish to take advantage of the opportunity it provides.
There are times in the life of citizens when we need a respite from the fast pace of the 24/7 news cycle and ubiquitous social media to regain our bearings, enrich our understanding of the issues at hand, deepen our grasp of the arguments in play, round out the narratives of the day, broaden our overall perspective, appreciate subtleties and complexities, and develop our emotional repertoire. The current hyperpolarization of political discourse is just such a time. Speed sustains the divide. Kneejerk responses do not require a deeper grasp of ideas or fuller characterization of people. Otherness on the fly is misunderstood and threatening, which is a problem for democratic pluralism and polity.
Slow reading and careful listening are not the equivalent of nonpartisanship. Full political texts are partisan. The idea of deliberating differences means that we have to listen and read carefully enough to understand and appreciate the perspective of those with whom we agree and disagree. Otherwise, there is no hope of finding workable points of convergence and compromise or sustaining faith in the system and the possibility of effecting future change when our side loses a round or two or three of the debate.
I hasten to add here that I do not mean to ignore the reality that political and economic elites are the dominant players behind the scenes and even on the public stage, or to overlook the fact that the people we elect to represent the citizenry are largely beholden to ruling elites. Indeed, our democratic culture is thin, not thick. Accordingly, my sense of democracy leans toward dissent, specifically deliberative dissent, which I take to be a constructive means of strengthening the hand of an otherwise politically marginalized citizenry. Dissent that is deliberative cannot be just fast paced; it requires a degree of critical immersion in full texts that are necessarily partisan but not necessarily totalizing or polarizing, texts that reflect the contingencies and complexities of political life revealed in different perspectives.
I cannot escape my own partisanship in endorsing slow reading of full political texts, but I can entertain the belief that there are partisans of a different persuasion who are slow, thoughtful readers. Indulging ourselves exclusively in fast-paced political communication and truncated texts reduces to near zero the chance of understanding one another well enough to coexist politically. Rich texts carefully and closely read hold out the promise of enhancing democratic culture.
Many, probably most, of the US citizenry recognizes the difference of pace that distinguishes Barack Obama’s political talk from Donald Trump’s. Obama’s texts are full and nuanced. When Obama addressed the deteriorating state of US democracy, in an hourlong speech at the University of Illinois on September 7, an address that was explicitly critical of the current president and his divisive politics of fear, Donald Trump dismissed the speech as boring. The whirlwind of our digital age included headlines that featured confrontation, such as the online New York Times’ “Obama Lashes Trump in Debut 2018 Speech. President’s Response: ‘I Fell Asleep.’” The Guardian, in a link attached to its main online story, offered a quick summary of the speech organized into a list of takeaways: on Donald Trump, on the politics of division, on the answer to Trump, on racists, on the freedom of the press, on Republicans and Congress, on Democrats, on common ground, on women and politics, on the power of voting, and don’t tweet, vote. This summary was more extensive than most, and thus may not have been read as often as shorter summaries.
It does not take long to find the full text of Obama’s address. I found the speech transcript at Time.com and a video of it on YouTube uploaded by the University of Illinois. It is readily available elsewhere on the internet, including at NPR.
Of course, there is no single, definitive close reading of Obama’s text. I came to the speech looking for some insight into how a hyperpolarized citizenry might engage the political process more constructively. Thus, I find myself focusing mostly on what he has to say about finding common ground to promote social progress democratically. He covers a lot of topics in this speech, each with its own trajectory, and says a great deal to inspire his young audience to get out the vote in the upcoming election. But what Obama says about finding common ground and conducting our politics democratically intersects with his critique of President Trump, the ruling Republican Party, and the rest of Obama’s views on racism, sexism, freedom of the press, and voting.
Slow reading entails interpretive choices. In my reading, Obama’s words about finding common ground in the service of progressive politics merit close attention. He focuses on finding common ground, not making it. In his words, “Common ground exists. I have seen it. I have lived it.” And again, “Common ground’s out there. I see it every day.” This is no pie-in-the-sky notion; knowledge of common ground is rooted in experience. Most Americans, he observes, “have operated under some common assumptions about who we are and what we stand for.” These assumptions transcend political party and, as we begin to see upon close inspection of the speech, they are implicitly supportive of progressive politics in Obama’s narrative.
As Obama tells the story of common ground, even those who disagree with him and the Democratic Party (whether Libertarian or Evangelical) “should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.” What else? Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree that law enforcement should not be partisan, the press should not be attacked for publishing stories the governing party doesn’t like, and we should stand up to discrimination and stand against Nazi sympathizers.
His story of the existence of common ground includes references to “white people who care about black people being treated unfairly” and “black people who care deeply about the struggles of white rural America.” He knows of “evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change” and “conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their parents.” He sees common ground everyday where people interact on the ball field, at work, and in places of worship.
Obama’s story of common ground is embedded in commonplaces: government of, by, and for the people; no permanent ruling class; neither political party has had a monopoly on wisdom; neither has been “exclusively responsible for us going backwards instead of forward”; the current Republican establishment is radical, not conservative; “we have to bring people together, not tear them apart.” And more.
Working from common ground means working for change democratically, which means “cooperation among people of different political persuasions.” People have to be brought together rather than torn apart to “create majorities who are serious about governing and want to bring about real change and improvements in people’s lives.” We cannot alienate one another by calling each other names or by fighting fire with fire. The politics of division, resentment, and paranoia are destructive no matter who practices them. Progress is fitful and incomplete. It does not move in a straight line or happen all at once. It requires compromise. A healthy democracy cannot “traffic in absolutes.” It is about making things better, not perfect. We have to hope we can change minds and have to remain open to having our own minds changed.
The tone of the speech and its theme of finding common ground for progressive change is one of political contestation rather than “some phony version of civility” that privileges politeness as a way of getting one’s way. Obama aims for serious debate made possible by the discovery of common ground and a willingness to compromise that transcends party affiliation.
There is more to tease out of this speech, including much to be said about Obama’s performance of his message. What he says and how he says it is an example of standing back from the whirlwind long enough to consider democratic ways of advancing a progressive agenda. He deserves to be read slowly and listened to carefully.