RALEIGH – Two articles in Sunday’s Raleigh News & Observer prompted me to think about the problem of personal insults in North Carolina politics.
Rob Christensen’s column explored the recent claim by a local GOP leader and some national conservative writers that Gov. Bev Perdue is “dumb.” Christensen attributed the personal attack to a longstanding sexism in state political life, despite the fact that the Wake County Republican involved was Susan Bryant. (Now that I think about it, his column cast some aspersions of his own without solid evidence. He recycled the dubious accusation that Republican redistricting efforts targeted Democratic women for their outspokenness. And he overlooked the sex of the current House majority whip.)
Elsewhere in the N&O was a news story about former Sen. Howard Lee’s controversial charter school proposal in Orange County. Lee, who won election decades ago as Chapel Hill’s first black mayor, has come under fire from some liberal and Democratic critics as being a tool of neo-segregationists and profiteers by pushing for a charter school that would target underachieving minority students and be operated by National Heritage Academies, a school-management firm.
Set aside your level of policy agreement with these two individuals, and consider only the substance of the respective personal attacks. Does anyone truly believe that Dr. Perdue – whose lengthy career has included stints in education, health care administration, and decades in elective office – lacks intelligence?
And does anyone truly believe that Sen. Lee – a former chairman of the state board of education and one of North Carolina’s most prominent black politicians – would allow himself to be used by racists or enemies of public education?
I happen to think that some of Gov. Perdue’s policies, such as her 2009 tax increase and her 2011 attempt to extend it, have been wrongheaded. I also happen to think that public speaking is not the governor’s strong suit. But I don’t think either fact establishes her as the “dumbest governor in America.” Perdue is simply mistaken on economic policy and sometimes fails to communicate effectively.
Neither failing proves a lack of intelligence. People of average or above-average intelligence disagree with each other all the time, often because they lack common assumptions, principles, or information. And many people of average or above-average intelligence are poor communicators. Some glib speakers, on the other hand, don't really know what they are talking about.
Similarly, you might think that charter schools are a bad idea, and that it would be better to maximize enrollment and tax funding within district-run public schools. That doesn’t mean you have to assume that those who disagree with you are actively trying to limit educational opportunity, rip off the taxpayers, and promote resegregation.
There’s plenty of room for robust debates about important political issues without resorting to unfair and vindictive personal attacks. I don’t mean to suggest that personal character is never fair game in political debate – unethical or criminal behavior in office is fully deserving of personal condemnation – but it does mean that the political process is best served by those who can disagree without immediately making it personal and becoming obnoxious.
By offering this opinion, I suppose I am setting myself up to be called naïve. So be it. Better “naïve” than more caustic or insulting adjectives.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.