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We Are More Civil Than Obama Gives Us Credit for

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President Obama is generally getting strong reviews for his speech last night, and I think he did a fine job of calling the nation to a higher purpose. There were even some moments when his rhetoric spread its wings, as when he urged us to "expand our moral imaginations." Although there was nothing that came close to Peggy Noonan's words written for Ronald Reagan, and spoken on the day the Challenger astronauts perished: "We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

My issue, though, is that while the America the president describes might be the one he and his tight circle of advisers inhabit, it is not the one I see, or that most Americans do. The White House is in a bubble that magnifies the partisanship, the incivility, and the coarseness of the conversation. It is not surprising that from his point-of-view "our discourse has become so sharply polarized" that "we are far too easy to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do."

But most American do not reside in a Manicheistic world that cleaves into an Olbermann/O'Reilly divide. There are more than 200 million adults in America, and only a small fraction of them are regularly watching the cable programs that burn with heated rhetoric.

In fact, it's the other way around. As the Pew Report puts it:

Centrism has emerged as a dominant factor in public opinion as the Obama era begins. Both political parties have lost adherents since the election and an increasing number of Americans identify as independents. {In fact} The proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years.

The fact that most Americans are in the middle, that millions of us are rejecting the dogmatism of the two major parties, belies the description of the country that Obama put forth yesterday. The reality is that there aren't many Americans for whom politics is the ultimate lens through which they see the world. There are only a handful, in fact, of those who will view the events in Tucson as a platform for ideological debate. When President Obama warns against speaking "... on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle," he is speaking from his own struggles and wounds, but isn't capturing the mood of the vast majority of Americans -- those for whom he should speak.

Outside of the dysfunctional world of the Beltway, or the absurd demonization of political advertising, or the ratings hunt that drives cable TV to ever-increasing heights of manufactured hysteria, or the rants of noisy but ultimately small groups of flame-throwers, most of "us" go about our lives with a level of civility and tolerance of differing political perspectives that doesn't chime with the portrait of America painted last night. I am well aware that the Tea Party was the elephant in the room in Arizona -- but it's a mistake to turn its emergence, and its spotty performance in November, into a proxy for American attitudes.

Yes, the president is right on one level. Who can argue that we should "listen to each other more carefully" and "pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds." But last night, he made broad and sweeping generalizations that are inaccurate summations of the current state of American society; his implicit use of Fox and MSNBC and radio talk shows as proxies for our state-of-mind is as mistaken as any political stereotyping, whether it be immigrants as dangerous criminals or government workers as lazy sloths.

I understand why the president used the meme of a polarized nation as his foil. Creating an opposing framework is a classic rhetorical device. But in doing so, in misreading the true nature of American character, he actually credentialized the extreme voices -- those on the angry right and angry left -- who view the world in exactly the same way he describes. The "we" the president chose as his rhetorical peg is far, far less universal than the pronoun itself signifies.

Cross-posted from SpinSeason.com

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