Yesterday, on the ninth anniversary of his announcement that he would run for president, Obama returned to Springfield and gave a speech at the Illinois General Assembly. In it, he returned to a theme he talked about in both his 2015 and 2016 State of the Union speech: A Better Politics. This is something the President has been thinking about for a while now and is likely going to be one of the causes he champions post-presidency.
Informed by his background as a community organizer, he has a unique take on the causes and consequences of our political polarization. It starts with what Ta-Nehisi Coates once said that he shares with activists from our past:
Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined — in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion’s share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King’s belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
Here is how President Obama talked about that yesterday while reminiscing about his time as a state senator from Illinois:
I learned that most Americans aren’t following the ins and outs of the legislature carefully, but they instinctively know that issues are more complicated than rehearsed sound bites; that they play differently in different parts of the state and in the country. They understand the difference between realism and idealism; the difference between responsibility and recklessness. They had the maturity to know what can and cannot be compromised, and to admit the possibility that the other side just might have a point.
And it convinced me that if we just approached our national politics the same way the American people approach their daily lives — at the workplace, at the Little League game; at church or the synagogue — with common sense, and a commitment to fair play and basic courtesy, that there is no problem that we couldn’t solve together.
Perhaps you have the same reaction that Coates had to talk like that – it makes you suck your teeth. But the truth is that if we really do believe in this thing called democracy, that has to be your starting place. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.
Eventually, the President got into the truth about what a better politics means for governing in a democratic republic. This also makes some people feel like sucking their teeth. He started by outlining his own values as a progressive Democrat. And then said this:
I believe that there are a lot of Republicans who share many of these same values, even though they may disagree with me on the means to achieve them. I think sometimes my Republican colleagues make constructive points about outdated regulations that may need to be changed, or programs that even though well-intended, didn’t always work the way they were supposed to.
And where I’ve got an opportunity to find some common ground, that doesn’t make me a sellout to my own party…
So trying to find common ground doesn’t make me less of a Democrat or less of a progressive. It means I’m trying to get stuff done.
And the same applies to a Republican who, heaven forbid, might agree with me on a particular issue..
Yes, with that, the President weighed in on a topic that is creating a lot of heat in the Democratic presidential primary right now. But let’s be honest, this is something Barack Obama has been talking about since he first came on the national scene in 2004 and has continued to both talk about and practice since then. So if you are tempted to think that he is only saying this in order to tip the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton, you are being extremely short-sighted. As James Kloppenberg wrote in his book titled Reading Obama, this kind of approach is basic to the President’s view of how democracy works.
It has become a cliche to characterize Obama as a pragmatist, by which most commentators mean only that he has a talent for compromise – or an unprincipled politician’s weakness for the path of least resistance. But there is a decisive difference between such vulgar pragmatism, which is merely an instinctive hankering for what is possible in the short term, and philosophical pragmatism, which challenges the claims of absolutists…and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation…
Between college and law school, Obama spent three crucial years working as a community organizer in Chicago, and observers unsurprisingly take for granted that there must be a difference between what he learned on the streets of the far south side and what he learned in the seminar rooms of elite universities. To a striking degree, however, the lessons were congruent: Democracy in a pluralist culture means coaxing a common good to emerge from the clash of competing individual interests.
These are things that Barack Obama has been talking about since before he entered politics. If you don’t understand that they are the bedrock on which his values as a progressive Democrat are built, then you are probably tempted to see him as naive or a sellout.
Beginning with his 2016 State of the Union, the President has added some concrete steps we can take politically to create a better politics. They are as follows:
1. “First is to take, or at least reduce, some of the corrosive influence of money in our politics.”
2. “The second step towards a better politics is rethinking the way that we draw our congressional districts.” On this one, the President made an interesting point about how this contributes to polarization.
You wonder why Congress doesn’t work? The House of Representatives there, there may be a handful — less than 10 percent — of districts that are even competitive at this point. So if you’re a Republican, all you’re worried about is what somebody to your right is saying about you, because you know you’re not going to lose a general election. Same is true for a lot of Democrats.
3. “…a third step towards a better politics is making voting easier, not harder; and modernizing it for the way that we live now.” He made an interesting point about how this one loops back to #1 and #2.
Now, the more Americans use their voice and participate, the less captive our politics will be to narrow constituencies. No matter how much undisclosed money is spent, no matter how many negative ads are run, no matter how unrepresentative a district is drawn, if everybody voted, if a far larger number of people voted, that would overcome in many ways some of these other institutional barriers.
This is where we might find President Obama agreeing with Bernie Sanders. But it is also a way of pointing the finger at us – as citizens – rather than at “those people” who rig our system. The reason special interests have so much power is because we have abdicated ours.
In the end, here’s how the President defined a better politics:
We’ve got to build a better politics — one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas; one that’s less of a business and more of a mission; one that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.
If you are interested in watching the whole speech, here it is: