According to a Yale University librarian, the year’s best quote was former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that 47 percent of Americans were beyond the reach of his campaign because they were dependent on the government. His comment about “binders full of women” made the list as well, as did President Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that.” (So was Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” blunder, but that is a different problem.)
Since the original Yale Book of Quotations was published in 2006, librarian Fred Shapiro has devised an annual update of quotes that are frequently repeated and discussed that year. What seems notable about this year’s list is that it is topped by quotes that were both tremendously divisive and widely repeated in the context of what seems like intentional misinterpretation and misrepresentation.
Romney’s “47 percent” comment, which began life as an aside at a private fundraiser last spring, was made to sound like the candidate did not care about 47 percent of the people he was seeking to serve. While it is important to the attitudes of candidates toward potential constituents, and while Romney frequently seemed dismissive of their concerns, what he actually said was not inaccurate. It is a safe bet that the Obama campaign had many similar discussions as the candidate and his supporters decided where to concentrate their resources.
The American public loves “gotcha” moments. People want to believe that what they see in a candidate is not what they will really get, that there is some deep, dark secret waiting to be revealed. Facts do not matter all that much; people will cling to irrational ideas long after they have been disproven. Long after Obama is dead, people will still argue about where he was born.
Email forwarding, Twitter and Facebook keep those conversations going. An email pops up in someone’s inbox, purporting to be news – a current example is the 2009 email, false then and false now, claiming that the White House Christmas tree is now called a “holiday tree” – and it flies around the Internet to people willing to believe, and pass along, a claim detrimental to someone they do not like.
American politics in the 21st century seems to depend on the premise that an idea cannot be good for me until it is also bad for my opponents. Likewise, if the other party favors it, even if it appears to make sense, there must be something about it that is harmful to me or my interests.
That belief explains why “fiscal cliff” talks have been nonproductive, even though a large majority of Americans – constituents, again – agree at least on the broad framework of he solution, and even though politicians on both sides of the aisle can see fairly clearly what the end result will be. They could agree on it today and go home – and they will, just as soon as both parties figure out how to spin the deal as a win for their side.
The same phenomenon takes place locally. Common-sense compromises are shouted down by all parties, who are not willing to leave the table until they have won each point and thoroughly defeated their opponents. As they tally of mythical wins and losses, little gets done.
That is not to say that legitimate principles are irrelevant. They are not. But drawing hard lines and refusing to acknowledge that the other side has some valid points – they always do – creates gridlock, not progress.
And while progress is not being made, problems are growing.
The election is over. Agreeing to set aside the “gotcha” mentality would be a good start toward actual accomplishments. It is time for Americans and politicians alike to quit playing this game.