Although it may seem an oxymoron, “political virtue” was the topic I threw myself into when researching a doctoral dissertation eight years ago in the weeks after Barack Obama’s first election as president.
Ordinary Americans whom I interviewed from four states, after snickering a bit over my subject, expressed plenty of excitement over the virtues they perceived in Obama – resilience, idealism, industriousness, inclusiveness, integrity.
This was especially true, most of these randomly picked Democrats, independents and even Republicans told me, when they compared Obama’s qualities with those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In the aftermath of Bush’s bungling of wide-ranging calamities from Iraq and Katrina to Wall Street, they said, Obama had raised the bar on virtue.
“I think Mr. Obama tapped into a reserve of moral purpose in political life that had been dormant because political life has been … just self-serving,” an independent in California told me.
In a similar vein, a Maine Republican said the Bush years took a virtue toll: “I just feel he (Bush) let the country down … morally, in a sense.”
Opined a Maine Democrat: “That Mr. Obama … is trying to be an ethical leader … is such a tremendous relief to me.”
Even though some of his staunchest Democratic supporters would later express public disappointment over what they considered Obama’s lack of backroom toughness, the president appears to have generally held fast to the appealing virtues that helped propel him to the White House.
The words of my interviewees, 24 women and 24 men in California, Kansas, Connecticut and Maine, buttressed by Obama’s discipline through a taxing presidency, convince me that most Americans would never consider embracing the darkly contentious, self-aggrandizing, resolutely ill-informed and unartful Donald Trump.
Yet all of us are burdened by the sense of incivility that pervades this presidential campaign. As captured in a recent New York Times video, some Trump fans feel free to chant the “b” word against Hillary Clinton at Trump rallies and even cruder words against Obama – all without apparent repudiation by anyone in hearing distance.
This week brought the start of fall classes at California State University, Sacramento, where I teach. A feeling of uneasiness, marked by the tone of the election season, has drifted onto the campus. University President Robert Nelsen in his welcoming address to us professed to be worried over the election, over displays of violence, over a general state of incivility.
“We can disagree; we can even argue; but I am asking us to be civil. I am asking for us to care about and to look out for each other. I am asking us to respect each other. I am asking for us to be a true Hornet family. Let’s get through this election,” he said.
A day after his remarks, the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, a resource for faculty, emailed ideas for keeping classrooms civil if we choose to engage our students in controversial discussions this political season. Although freedom of expression is a tenet of university learning, for the first time I’ve felt a need this semester to include a civility policy in my syllabi.
Against this backdrop, the voices of my interviewees – 25 Democrats, 14 Republicans and nine independents – still offer hope that we will return to a thoughtfully engaged, caring and civil America, in most quarters, at least, when this election is over. It’s unclear what influence Trump’s words might continue to have among some. But, as Obama might put it, that’s not who we are.
Rebecca LaVally is a former editor for the California Senate Office of Research and former Sacramento bureau manager for United Press International and Gannett News Service. She teaches persuasion at Sacramento State and is a co-author of the book “Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.