Fearful politicians, fundamentalists and Fox News have a steady drumbeat of anti-government rhetoric that repeats the same charge – Washington is not listening.
When politicians, preachers and pundits use the same language, is it a coincidence or a conspiracy?
“Washington is not listening to the people. They’re just not listening to the people,” said Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, in a recent sermon.
The former president of the Southern Baptist Convention drew from a text in 1 Kings 12 where Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, became king.
Rehoboam “did not listen to the people…He practiced poor discernment,” said Young, who proclaimed that Jerusalem was broken then and Washington is broken now.
To illustrate his claim that Washington is out of step with America, Young said that 91 percent of Americans believe in God, yet the secular government seeks to take “God out of the schools, God out of the business world, God out of every area of our life.”
Repeating the well-worn fundamentalist diatribe against government, Young charged: “Our secular government is trying to make us into a secular society, a God-free society. And a secular society is a deadly way. It means there is a people who have forgotten God. And Washington is not listening because the courts and much of our legislatures are doing everything for us to be politically correct and to get God out of everything in our life.”
Pacing across the stage, Young said, “My thesis is that broken Washington is not listening.”
Alleging that Washington and the courts have not been listening to the American people about abortion, the wealthy preacher repeated the language of Fox News and asserted that Americans are not in favor of the health care bill. “They’re not listening. They’re ramming it through our throats every way they can…Washington is not listening.”
Young’s language that “Washington is not listening” is identical to the language of the Tea Party members, those protestors who roar against taxes, rally against health care reform and repeat the claim that President Obama wasn’t born in America, meaning he is an illegitimate president.
“Our government has got to stop not listening to us. People are angry about that. This is a representative government. The majority today is not being heard,” said Mark Skoda, leader of the Memphis Tea Party at a Friday afternoon press conference during the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville.
The Revolutionary War re-enactor and preacher William Temple said at the Nashville meeting, “The folks in the House and Senate are not listening to the average American.”
The Sunday after the Tea Party convention, Sarah Palin said on Fox News that Obama was not listening to the American people.
“I think instead of lecturing, he needs to stop and he needs to listen on health care issues,” she said. “He’s not listening…And we want him and we want Congress to listen to what those things are that we are saying.”
Fox News hosts push the “not listening” line. Sean Hannity charges Obama isn’t listening to the generals on the ground. Glenn Beck says the president isn’t listening to the American people. Neil Cavuto uses the “not listening” language. Fox provides a platform for a host of conservatives to claim Obama is not listening.
Before the House of Representatives voted on health care reform legislation, a series of angry Republicans charged that Obama wasn’t listening to America.
None was more corrosive than the angry House Minority Leader John Boehner. He charged that the House was not listening to America, followed by several “hell no you can’t” statements.
What is the purpose of the “not listening” claim so often repeated across America?
One purpose of the “not listening” mantra is intended to delegitimize the president with the accusation that he is not following the will of the American people. That, in turn, feeds the narrative that Obama is anti-America.
Another purpose is to validate the public displays of anger and to justify the anti-government protests – shouting down speakers in forums, cursing congressmen, spitting at opponents, uttering the n-word, spewing “baby killer” on the House floor, leaving death threats on answering machines. For some people, loudness, crudeness and bullying are justified to get another person’s attention.
For other people, the “not listening” charge legitimizes violence and vandalism. These folk may believe that belligerent behavior is righteous against something seen as immoral or unpatriotic.
A third reason is that the right certainly knows that a statement repeated often enough becomes truth for its followers, especially when it goes unexamined. If enough right-wingers say that Obama is not listening, then he must not be listening. When preachers pontificate the same phrase that pundits prattle, the undiscerning fail to hear the duplicity of redundancy.
What the “not listening” accusation represents is the high fever of those who aren’t getting their way and who lack the ability to present a compelling argument for why their way is a better way. They are out of political power. Their ideology is buckling. Their perceived racial and class entitlement to power is slipping away. The world is changing.
We need to recognize what that phrase means, why it is being used and where it can lead. Untruth anywhere is a threat to truth everywhere. Hate talk is a short step away from actions of hate.
Passivity and silence are unacceptable positions for people of good will. Proactive engagement and rebuttal are required.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.