I suppose it is a tribute to the strength of our democracy that so many prominent people can say such remarkably ignorant, ridiculous and hateful things without fear of any reprisal more serious than blustering bloggers and parodies on SNL. Honestly, I’m trying to find something hopeful in the ugly barrage of unbelievably trashy rhetoric from Those Who Would Be President. But tributes to the strength of the First Amendment notwithstanding, We the People should actually be expressing some serious outrage at the whole tawdry mess that this presidential primary season has become.
Candidates treat us like witless mobs craving more Bread and Circus spectacles — or, in modern parlance, reality television contests in which the contestants seem to vie for the most stupid, irrational statements. Many have trashed Syrian refugees who have done absolutely nothing wrong except try to flee from the very horrors the candidates are using for their own political posturing. One candidate suggests putting labels on immigrants just as we do with Fedex packages. Another candidate denies the existence of racial bias in policing. Another candidates says that if he is elected president he will order surveillance of mosques and create a national registry of Muslims. Yet another candidate said he would create a federal agency to promote Judaeo-Christian values.
Huh? Did they all skip Civics class? Do our aspiring presidents care so little for the most fundamental American constitutional principles that they would trammel them all in order to gain power? History is replete with examples of dictatorships built on fear and demagoguery pitting people against each other on the basis of race and religion.
And just today, the same candidate who would register Muslims said on national television that it was ok that a black man was beaten during his political rally yesterday. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” declared the candidate in what must be one of the most shocking displays of callous disregard for fundmental human rights and dignity perhaps ever displayed by a candidate for the presidency.
Why are we putting up with this shameful show? Why do candidate poll ratings go up with each more outrageous display of irresponsible demagoguery and sheer hatred for people who are different from their base?
The presidential election should not be conducted like The Hunger Games. We can and should hold those who would be president to much higher standards than talk radio hosts and basement bloggers. We can and MUST establish some rational baseline for the temperament and moral fiber and fundamental respect for American legal values of those who would be president.
Yes, terrorism is horrific. What ISIS terrorists did in Paris was unspeakably awful. And by the way, who is paying attention to what Boko Haram is doing in Africa? Terrorism is a worldwide scourge that must be eradicated, yes. But careless rhetoric among American presidential candidates does nothing other than encourage the hate that fuels the terrorists. Did we learn nothing in the last 15 years in the failures we experienced repeatedly in the lost War on Terorrism? Waterboarding, by the way, was not a successful tool in stopping terrorism — despite the desire of one presidential candidate to restore torture as an American tactic.
As members of a collegiate community, we all have different opinions about the presidential candidates and their positions, and I certainly respect the freedom of every person on campus to hold and express different opinions about the candidates. Everyone can and should vote for the candidate of their choice.
But while respecting the freedom and privacy of the ballot box, as an academic leader I also believe it is incumbent on all of us in the teaching community to call out the ignorance, the deliberate mis-statements of fact, the irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric that debilitates the ability of the American people to engage in a rational debate of our options as a society. We need less heat and more light in this campaign thus far. We need to demand that all candidates tone down the hateful sound bites and ratchet-up the thoughtful dialogue that shows what a real leader will do in the critical years ahead to advance our most precious values in a complicated, treacherous world. Those who would be our leaders must show respect for the real American values of liberty and justice for all, which include human rights and religious freedom for all.