The always excellent Andrew Ferguson has a good piece at the Weekly Standard commenting on President Obama’s habit of using the expression “who we are as a people.” As is usual with Ferguson’s writing, it is both funny and insightful.
Partly restating Ferguson’s points, and partly developing them, I would say there are three things troubling about this habit.
In the first place, it is annoying. It is a kind of speechwriting tic, a cliche that anybody who follows politics will notice sooner or later and then get tired of (sooner rather than later). I don’t mean this as a criticism of President Obama alone. Most politicians have these catch-phrases. Most of them are trite, and all of them get tiresome with enough exposure.
The second and third problems are more serious: it is mentally debilitating and politically toxic.
This kind of thing–constantly framing public questions in terms of “who we are as a people”–is mentally debilitating because it tends to substitute simple moralism for the kind of prudential thinking that is almost always necessary to politics. Take, for example, President Obama’s recent claims that what America did to terrorist detainees was contrary to “who we are as a people.” Let’s agree, by all means, that torture is a bad thing, and that there are some things one would never do to another human being for any reason. Nevertheless, the reduction of the problem to these simplistic moral categories does not do justice to the kinds of questions a political community confronts and must resolve. While there are limits to what anybody should do to a prisoner, it would also not be responsible for the public authorities charged with defending the country to ask a detainee a few optional questions and let it go at that. In other words, given the threats to innocent human lives, public officials cannot responsibly reject everything that might be considered “enhanced interrogation.” I don’t mean using the rack, of course, but some effort to put some pressure on prisoners to tell what they know about plots to kill the innocent is not morally out of bounds. Righteous talk about “who we are as a people,” in the absence of any prudential discussion of the need for intelligence, does not make it easier for us to draw the appropriate lines.
This kind of rhetoric is politically toxic because it implicitly–as Ferguson points out–defines ones political opponents as outside the political community. If they don’t agree with you, they are not representing “who we are as a people.” They are not just reasoning incorrectly about goods we all want to achieve, but are apparently bad people. This is not helpful, since it tends to make cooperation impossible.