For me, I often come back to the historic speech that former President George W. Bush made shortly after 9/11 at the Islamic Center of Washington on September 17, 2001. “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenants of the Islamic faith,” he said. “And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.” In my mind, those words remain as true today as they did in 2001.
As to the politics of the campuses, where you and I spend most of our time (and I would say that these two issues should really be in very separate categories), shutting down speech has certainly been wrong. The beauty of the university is that students should be exposed to all sorts of ideas, including ideas that they fundamentally disagree with.
But by and large the efforts to shut down speech remain isolated, though high profile, incidents. Students all over the country are engaged in all sorts of protests and activism—from fighting for policies providing for racial inclusion, to holding vigorous debates over foreign policy and climate change and what a university should or should not support with their resources as they relate to these issues, to ongoing debates about political ideas. Sure, the protests sometimes move in a destructive direction but this is nothing new, as we can remember from the 1960s. In most colleges, the reality is that a quick look at university websites shows that a multiplicity of speakers are still talking about different issues from different perspectives all the time. Indeed, shortly after the Middlebury incident Charles Murray spoke at Columbia University, a hotbed of liberal activism, without incident. I have not seen any solid evidence showing that students have somehow shut down debate in a systematic fashion. The danger in my mind is to take incidents like what occurred with Murray and make them seem like the norm.
And finally, as we have discussed, I do believe that there is a false equivalency problem when analyzing party politics since the 1990s. While it is true that there is passion on both sides of the aisle and there are also overblown fears, differences do exist between the parties. I am convinced by the extensive political science research that shows Republicans as a whole have moved further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left. I also believe many Republicans have been more willing than Democrats to engage in a ruthless style of political warfare than shunts aside the need for governance on a regular basis. There is no comparison between the organizational strength and popularity of the conservative media, which often traffics in conspiracy theory and false information, with the rather flimsy media that exists.
When it comes to Trump, there are many ways in which he is fundamentally different than anything we have seen and there are legitimate reasons for concern. The criticism about Trump is more than “over-the-top political paranoia.” His willingness to constantly lie, his appeals to nativism, xenophobia, sexism and anti-Semitism, the connection between key members of his campaign and a Russian government that intervened in the election, his willingness to slander former President Barack Obama and other leaders without evidence to substantiate his claims, and the radical nature of many of his proposals are all very serious stuff. The conflict-of-interest problem that exists for this administration is extremely problematic. There is good reason for his opponents to call him out and to be worried about the future. There are also more than enough reasons for journalists to investigate. This is much more than standard partisanship. To have a “reasonably dispassionate view” is not the same as normalizing unprecedented actions or ignoring fundamental differences between the parties.
If there is any major sea change driving politics in the last few decades, it has been the deep changes in the character of the economy. The growing insecurity and fragility of the middle class and the deepening divide between rich and poor have been forces underlying many of the changes that we have seen from elections to popular opinion. If we want to find big points of disjuncture, this is the one I would point to.