The Fallacy Of “When They Go Low, We Go High”

Elijah C. Watson Elijah Watson serves as Okayplayer's News & Culture Editor. When…
Photo Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

With Donald Trump’s one-term presidency coming to an end, we look at Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” statement and how the sentiment continues to persist in the political arena.

On November 4 2020, a day after election day, Joe Biden offered a series of tweets addressing the delayed tallying of votes across the country, as well as making calls for unity among his supporters.

“To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies,” Biden said in one of the tweets.

The sentiment carried with it a grace in the face of staunchly ignorant opposition of conservative and right-leaning figures and average people alike believing in — and projecting — the notion that this year’s election was stolen from Donald Trump and, by extension, them. But it also served as a reminder of the Democratic party’s approach to the Republican party and its supporters throughout these four years: to be respectable and not resort to the hurtful, mean-spirited trolling tactics of their opponents. Or, as Michelle Obama succinctly said: “When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle first uttered these words during her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She was addressing the harsh condemnation Barack Obama and his family faced while in the executive office, and how she explained the vitriol to their children, Malia and Sasha Obama.

“That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight,” Michelle said at the time. “How we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language that they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.”

“No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high,” she added.

The motto was highlighted in countless news headlines, foreshadowing its rise as a slogan. But it also foreshadowed the way in which Michelle and Barack would address their opponents throughout the forthcoming four years, making subtle remarks to Trump’s divisiveness and ineffectiveness as the country’s leader without ever explicitly mentioning him.

Two months prior to Michelle’s DNC appearance, Barack appeared at Rutgers University’s 250th-anniversary commencement, where he used his address to direct criticisms at Trump without naming him. During his speech, he alluded to Trump’s xenophobia against undocumented citizens trying to enter the United States from Mexico (“The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day. Building walls won’t change that”) and Muslims (“Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country, that is not just a betrayal of our values”), and his lack of experience as a politician (“If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane. And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, ‘I don’t want somebody who’s done it before'”). The snide swipes embodyed the presidential cool that had become associated with Barack since the beginning of his presidency.

By this point, Barack Obama would’ve been justified in abandoning that civil cool against Trump. From 2011 to 2016, Trump had stoked the birther conspiracy theory against former president Obama, the false claim further amplifying the racism he endured throughout his presidency. On September 16, 2016, Trump finally admitted Obama was born in the United States, even though he had refused to say such a day before during an interview with the Washington Post.

Obama’s collected measuredness in the face of such ignorance not only from Trump but other Republican and conservative figures is understandable. As America’s first Black president, Obama had to navigate himself in a way that wouldn’t alienate people — particularly white people — and maintain respectability at all times so as to not give anyone the chance to label him an “Angry Black Man.”

“Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any Black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of Obama in his 2012 essay, “Fear of a Black President.” “This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.”

Barack’s cool demeanor paired with Michelle’s “When they go low, we go high” approach ultimately became the way the Democratic party dealt with its opponents. Former democratic nominee Hillary Clinton employed the slogan throughout her 2016 presidential campaign, including during her first two debates with Trump. However, following her loss, the motto began to face backlash from Democratic figures who wanted to reciprocate the ire their opponents were directing at them rather than upholding a standard of political decency.

“The idea of not going into the gutter with your opponent is always a good idea,” David Atkins, a member of the Democratic National Committee, told the New Republic, before adding: “I think the whole attitude of ‘when they go low, we go high’ came across in a really privileged way to a lot of people.”

“If you’re going to tout your own decency, you don’t do it in a way that reinforces the perception of being the party of out-of-touch, comfortable, college-educated people… The key for Democrats going forward is to retain the decency inherent in that phrase but still manage to communicate that we feel the anger,” he said.

Although 2017 and the 2018 midterms led to some notable wins for Democratic politicians who seemed to embody Michelle’s sentiment, it still continued to face criticism from other Democratic figures, most notably Obama’s former Attorney General Eric Holder.

“Michelle [Obama] always says, you know, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. When they go low, we kick them,” Holder said during a campaign event for then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in October 2018. “That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”

Holder later clarified his comment, tweeting: “I’m obviously not advocating violence… I’m saying Republicans are undermining our democracy and Democrats need to be tough, proud and stand up for the values we believe in – the end.”

Michelle pushed back against Holder’s remarks, saying: “Think about how you want your kids to be raised. Do you want them afraid of their neighbors? Do you want them angry? Do you want them vengeful?”

“Fear is not a proper motivator. Hope wins out,” she added.

Later that year she also expanded on the meaning behind the motto, telling the New York Times: “‘Going high’ doesn’t mean you don’t feel the hurt, or you’re not entitled to an emotion. It means that your response has to reflect the solution. It shouldn’t come from a place of anger or vengefulness. Barack and I had to figure that out. Anger may feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to move the ball forward.”

In that same interview she was also given a hypothetical situation in which she was asked how she would “go high” against someone complaining about the Me Too movement.

“I wouldn’t even respond. I say: Let’s just do the work. If you said that, I know I’m not going to change your mind in the moment. You’d just feel attacked. I’d have to understand why you feel that way. I’d have to be your friend and get into your pain and hurt, your fears. And that takes time,” she said. “That’s the work that needs to happen around kitchen tables and in our communities. When I say ‘go high,’ I’m not trying to win the argument. I’m trying to figure out how to understand you and how I can help you understand me.”

The diplomatic response is admirable but flawed not just in its presumptiveness (it’s only effective if the person complaining is even receptive to constructive discourse) but in discounting the role of productive anger as a catalyst for change. As we’ve witnessed this year, calls to defund — and ultimately abolish — the police became a part of the mainstream lexicon as a result of anger that wasn’t just the culmination of constant police brutality against Black people in America, but frustration with how this country continues to mistreat its people, even during a worldwide pandemic. That Barack Obama recently diminished its impact to a “snappy slogan” and questioned its effectiveness despite cities across the country now trying to reduce their police budgets, serves as a reminder of his centrist and tactful approach, as well as a disconnect from the more left-leaning figures who’ve come to represent the country’s most disenfranchised liberals.Michelle continued to use her motto this year but there did come a slight and notable change with it in August. On the first night of the Democratic National Convention, she amended her slogan, saying that “going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold hard truth,” before offering her most explicitly direct denunciation of Trump.

“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is,” she said.

Here, unlike previous moments, there was no room for “When they go low, we go high” to be misunderstood. Michelle was straight in who she was directing her ire to, presenting a moment where her motto wasn’t an empty platitude but something that actually articulated the anger, disappointment and exhaustion of having to deal with a failed entrepreneur turned inept president for the past four years.

The rise of more left-leaning political figures like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and others has given way to a new tone and approach to speaking against their political opponents, which has galvanized like-minded people throughout the country. An embrace of the productive anger from the disenfranchised people of this country Democratic and left-leaning politicians claim to be advocating for is as necessary now as it’s ever been before, the sentiment of “When they go low, we go high” an ideal that this nation needs to move on from.

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