Virulence is not the only problem. Many political pleas for national conversations are too vague or self-serving to propel real dialogue. Think of Al Gore declaring in 1992 that he was joining the Democratic presidential ticket to help “make this campaign a national conversation about America’s future.”
Or Hillary Rodham Clinton launching her 2008 campaign by promising that “I’m not just starting a campaign . . . I’m beginning a conversation — with you, with America.”
Or Newt Gingrich, who last year called for “a national conversation among Republicans . . . over who can beat Barack Obama.” (Was Newt really open to discussion on that one?)
Even for presidents, the national conversation is hard to channel, and not just in the hashtag age. In the summer of 1997, President Bill Clinton declared that, “over the coming year, I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race.” The following year, Americans were indeed gripped by a national conversation, with Clinton at the center of it. Except it was about a White House intern, impeachment proceedings and the meaning of “is.”
In Obama’s telling, the national conversation is not just what we do — it is who we are. Long before he took the presidential oath, Obama displayed a genuine belief in the power of national dialogue.
In the preface to his memoir “Dreams From My Father,” Obama reminisces about working as a state senator in Springfield, Ill.: “Within the capitol building of a big, industrial state, one sees every day the face of a nation in constant conversation: inner-city mothers and corn and bean farmers, immigrant day laborers alongside suburban investment bankers — all jostling to be heard, all ready to tell their stories.” And in the book’s epilogue, he invokes a similar dialogue as a way to understand his chosen profession: “The law records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.”
In 2006’s “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama hails the Constitution “not just as a source of individual rights, but also as a means of organizing a democratic conversation around our collective future.” He even defines our democracy “not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had.”
From his college days, Obama was imbued with the concept of “deliberative democracy,” explains Harvard University historian James Kloppenberg, the author of a book on Obama’s intellectual development. This is the notion that politics is “not just the registering of brute individual interests and tallying of the votes, but discourse, conversation, deliberation,” he says. “Individual interests are not a given but something to be developed in dialogue with other participants in your democracy.”