The Wisdom of Silence

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. 

      Mark Twain 

When Twain made this remark he probably didn’t have American presidents in mind, but it captures an important lesson in an unintended way. Of course, Twain meant that if you’re a fool and you speak, your intellect will be more obvious to others than if you kept your mouth shut. Presidents often aren’t fools (yes, I did just write that) but speaking out even with wise words may be a foolish move. 

Over at The Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog, the writer, while staking out an odd position on gay marriage (one I happen to disagree with), observes that “for presidents, words are political actions.”

What would have been the actual political consequences of a decision by Barack Obama to come out in favour of gay marriage in the past year and a half? I don’t think there can be any doubt that such a move would have re-politicised an issue that, remarkably, has become steadily less partisan in recent years. Presidents can’t simply speak their minds. For presidents, words are political actions. A president who voices an opinion without considering the political consequences is acting irresponsibly. Presidents’ voiced opinions about social justice are very sharply constrained by whether voicing those opinions is likely to advance their visions of social justice at that political moment. And that means that presidents’ spoken views on such questions may lag far behind the pace of progressive opinion, and may become much less progressive when they are in power than they were before they were elected.

I happen to believe that Obama speaking out in favor of gay marriage would be beneficial to the cause (and would certainly put him on the right side of history), but it’s not preposterous to think that the opposite effect would result. There is no question that it would further politicize the issue just when a majority of Americans now believe in full marriage rights for gays and lesbians. 

On August 11th Matthew Yglesias wrote a post arguing that often presidential leadership can be counterproductive. He was talking about immigration, but this clearly applies to all issues. He was piggybacking off of Ezra Klein’s post on Francis Lee’s book Beyond Ideology which argues that “presidential positions” increase the partisanship on issues.

[The] American people — and the media — expect a lot of bully pulpit leadership. But that bully pulpit leadership polarizes the other party against the initiative, even when the messaging is effective.

Grasping this dynamic is key to understanding the wisdom of President Obama in not offering his full opinion of the Islamic center near Ground Zero. If anyone has any doubts of the effect, notice how the issue became more polarized when he just commented on the constitutionality of it. This isn’t to say that presidents shouldn’t ever speak out on controversial issues; it is to only notice that “A president who voices an opinion without considering the political consequences is acting irresponsibly.”

Given that, I think it’s unfair for writers on the left, right, and center to blast President Obama for being cowardly for not commenting on the wisdom of the choice or to give his personal opinion. Clive Crook’s latest FT column is a perfect illustration of this. This expands on his previous blog post on what Crook thinks Obama should have said. Of course, all this presumes Obama is, in fact, in favor of the mosque and thinks it is wise. If he thinks it is unwise and insensitive, does Crook still think it’d be unifying? Lee’s research suggests that had Obama spoken out by praising the wisdom of the mosque it would have made the polarization of the issue even worse. If he strongly argued that equating this mosque and Sufi Islam with the Islamic fanatics that attacked the US is completely irrational he would have been skewered for being insensitive to the 9/11 families. 

Presidents’ words also have effects diplomatically. Had Obama given too much sympathy for the sentiments of the 9/11 families by saying that it isn’t completely irrational to feel disgust at putting a mosque so close to the site of a horrendous attack by Islamic terrorists, how would that have played with our Muslim allies? To not consider the unintended consequences would be ill-advised. 

None of this is to argue that presidents shouldn’t take politically unpopular or politically dangerous stands if strong principles are at stake. Commentators just need to recognize the possible effects of a president’s words; after all, a president speaking out may be counterproductive to justice or diplomatic goals and these effects aren’t necessarily going to run in the same direction. Crook or Krauthammer or whoever can plausibly argue that the president should take a stand that they agree with because it is the right thing to do, but to argue that it is cowardly not to or that it would be “unifying” if he did is disingenuous or foolish – on this they’d be better off remaining silent. 



(image: abc news)

  1. PAt
    August 24, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I can't disagree with your points, but it should be noted that this conundrum is the other side of the double-edged sword of political connectedness. Isn't it funny too, that what is often most remembered and cherished about Presidents (or other public figures for that matter) are the moments when they speak from the heart. I was hoping that Mr. Obama would speak more from the heart as he ran on such a "populist" platform, but he has turned out to be just another political machine. I suppose if he wins a second term he will become more candid.

  2. August 25, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Good point on it being a double-edged sword of political correctness (that's what you meant, right?). I think the remedy for that is not for presidents to just always speak their minds regardless of political consequences, it is for us in the media and public to speak out and grapple with the truth. So when Obama says that Islam had nothing to do with 9/11, we can understand and appreciate why he said it while forcefully correcting that falsehood. I didn't see the same populism in his campaign that you did. Sure, he sounded a few populist notes as much as anyone – but he stayed away from the cheap populism of, say, a John Edwards. I hope for candidness even now, just as long as it isn't counterproductive to the ultimate goals we all hope for.

  3. Pat
    August 25, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    Agreed. Political consequences must be considered. However, there are consequences to everything a President says. Should this, then, preclude them from ever speaking with frankness?? I don't think so. Certainly, as you suggest, the remedy to protect oneself from political fallout is to avoid "speaking their mind", but the fallout from not taking a stand can be equally detrimental (as President Obama is finding out). I think as a leader, there is a certain obligation (and perhaps expectation) to the weigh odds. At times speaking one's mind, to me at least, is a sign of strength. Ronald Reagan was the master of weighing the odds when it came to speaking his mind, and so was Bill Clinton to a lesser extent. Their legacy as leaders was strengthened by this quality.

  4. August 25, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Of course it shouldn't prevent anyone from speaking with frankness. I tried hard to make that clear. It is only a lesson that a president has to be mindful of the potential consequences. I wish presidents would speak out more frankly, but on issues of grave consequence such as our struggle against terrorism or making all citizens feel welcome to help assimilate them a president must be careful (not mute; careful). I have to take some issue with your presidential choices. I've never thought of Reagan or Clinton as especially candid politicians. I know more about Clinton and I've heard him described in a lot of ways; honest was never one of them. Political correctness cuts both ways. The left often gets attacked for too sensitive and demanding of political correctness. But remember the outrage on the right when Obama commented (frankly?) on people clinging to their religion and guns? Also, isn't this entire mosque issue a big demand for muslims to be more sensitive and politically correct to the wishes of conservatives and 9/11 victims? The Islamic center doesn't actually hurt anyone physically; it's all imagined offense. Not saying that doesn't matter, just saying that it's a call for political correctness.

  5. August 26, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    The problem with Obama speaking out in favor of gay marriage would be that he already spoke out against it.

  6. August 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Not sure why that is self-evidently a problem. After all, further back (1996) he was in favor of gay marriage. No matter what he said in the past, isn't he allowed to change his mind?

  7. Pat
    August 27, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Flip-flopping is not cool, politically speaking. Ask Mitt Romney.

  8. August 27, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Don't make me enforce a no talking points ban here, Pat ;)

  9. August 27, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Not sure if that falls into double negative territory, but you know what I mean.

  10. Pat
    August 27, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    I'm confused. Did I say something wrong?

  11. August 27, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Haha don't worry; I'm just messing with you. The flip-flop thing – it was just a campaign talking point. I just feel when we slide into using those we're not being thoughtful enough. Even if the core of the message was correct; we should strive to articulate that in a less glib way. Honestly though, you were just making an off-the-cuff remark. It doesn't bother me. I was just trying to needle you a bit for it. All's good.

  12. pat
    August 27, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Phew. Sorry. Yes, less glib is good. Thanks professor (I mean that as a complement).

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