Closing acts are most often the most difficult; other than the partisans that had decided long before last nights speech, on its quality– Most Americans had a warm response to the outgoing Presidents farewell address.
It wasn’t what any one group wanted to hear, it was simply what the country needed to hear. A plea for participation in our system of government, a plea for empathy and the expansion of knowledge. Yet the comment sections of almost every online media outlet is flooded with partisan bickering, the same bickering that President Obama implored us to rise above.
Farewell addresses are historically important, more so when the President addressing the nation had served more than one term and is turning over the keys to a new party and ideology. From Washington to Eisenhower, these addresses have served as both a reminder of what was accomplished, and a warning as to what could come.
The President said it is his belief that the beginning of the 21st century has joined the moments in history that threaten the solidarity of the U.S. because of the “shrinking world,” demographic change, the threat of terrorism and widening inequality. That belief was likely fortified by the results of the 2016 presidential election, which handed victory to a man whose values stand in stark contrast to the current President’s. But the way we respond to those issues, he said, will determine the future of the country.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment, It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”
Obama defined the threat to liberal democracy as an ideological struggle almost akin to the Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union created a unipolar world, in which the presidents of the post-Cold war era presented democracy as an unchallengable idea spreading across the globe. Since 9/11, George W. Bush, and then Obama, have mostly defined the threat to the liberal order as coming from radical Jihadism. But Obama took pains to include illiberal states in the ranks of the enemies of democracy. The liberal order, he said, “is now being challenged – not just by radical Islam but also autocrats.”
Obama defended pluralism, reminding white Americans that their ancestors from Italy, Ireland and Poland were seen as foreign threats who could not be assimilated, like Latino immigrants today. He received probably his longest ovation within the speech by rejecting discrimination against Muslim-Americans. Obama attacked populism for fostering indiscriminate suspicion of elected officials:
“We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.” And he urged Americans to “insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service.”
Still these words were the most prescient, the most profound, and the most challenging.
So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.
And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.