In his final State of the Union, which doubled as a farewell address, President Obama did something unusual for a politician: He expressed regret.
“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention,” the president said. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
There’s no question this is urgent, unfinished business. By many objective domestic measures America is better off now than we were seven years ago, but we have fallen further behind on this front.
In 2008, then-Senator Obama campaigned on the slogan “One America,” an implicit diss to Sen. John Edwards’s proto-populist “Two Americas” riff. Four years before, he first rose to national prominence by proclaiming that “there are no red states or blue states, there is only the United States of America.”
The Republican field is now littered with first-term senators running for president. But they are running as dividers rather than uniters, reacting to a polarized base that seems to reward the loudest and least responsible voices. On the Democrats’ side of the aisle, an anemic field is essentially bifurcated between a Clinton restoration and a resurgent liberal populism led by an avowed Democratic Socialist.
The two parties are more polarized than ever before. And at least one stomach-turning poll found that a majority of millennials don’t think it’s essential to live in a democracy. No wonder Obama said combating this cynical, self-defeating drift into disillusion and hyperpartisanship was “maybe the most important thing I want to say tonight.”
In the process, the president took aim at Trump and tribalism, warned against identity politics and offered a three-part prescription for reducing polarization in American politics.
Demagogues have always been the dark side of democracy. The appeal of a strongman who promises to solve every problem through brute force, dividing the country into “us” against “them,” was a fear of the Founding Fathers. That fear is now embodied by Donald Trump.
The president fired off a few brush-back pitches in The Donald’s direction, an unusual move in a State of the Union. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong… When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
This full-throated defense of diversity as a source of strength, patriotically name-checking Muslims and mosques, alongside mention of gay rights and marriage equality and an extended conversation about climate change, is a reminder of how much President Obama has changed the terms of the debate over the past eight years. And this cultural shift helps fuel the frustrations of conservative populists who want to “take America back.”
Of course, eight years ago it would have been hard to imagine an Indian-American female governor of South Carolina giving the Republican response to the first black president. Our country is changing, and perhaps not coincidentally Nikki Haley also found time in her speech to implicitly diss Trump. “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”
Haley’s VP audition was a timely reminder that neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice and that good people can disagree civilly in our democracy. This dovetailed nicely with Obama’s core caution about the coarseness of our civic debates these days: “Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic.”
An assumption of goodwill between fellow citizens is essential to democracy. And that has eroded, with anger and anxiety pimped out by professional polarizers who profit personally and politically from division. From talk radio to the split-scream of cable TV to the social-media mobs who shout down any hint of disagreement, the result has been a ceding of the field to the most hardcore partisans while more modest, moderate members of society look at all the mudslinging and think they’ve got better things to do with their time. This is the way inmates take over the asylum.
The result is already a dynamic we recognize: “As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.”
So how do we begin to heal these divisions and fix our politics? The president laid out three broad prescriptions.
Redistricting reform: “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” Surprisingly, this got applause from the assembled members of Congress, many of whom wouldn’t be in office for decades despite rock-bottom approval ratings if it weren’t for the rigged system of redistricting. After all, as the president joked, “it’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber.” He was right to call out gridlock created by legislators afraid to vote for bills they privately support because it could make them vulnerable to a primary challenge. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan has denounced this cowardly habit of voting “no” while hoping a bill passes. Independent redistricting reform is the solution but that won’t happen until after the 2020 Census and there needs to be leadership well in advance to take advantage of that once-in-a-decade opportunity.
Reducing the influence of big money in politics: “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.” The president’s comments stopped well short of calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have done, but that’s not going to move forward as long as Republicans control Congress. On the GOP side, filed under blind-squirrel-gets-nut, Donald Trump is the one candidate who has called out the corrupt bargain behind the super PAC charade. But aggressive enforcement of existing laws by the toothless FEC would rein in some of the absurd abuses.
Election reform: “We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.” Obama also called for this on the night of his re-election in response to reports of long lines at polling places and a bipartisan commission produced an anodyne report that failed to gain much traction amid the rollback of the Voting Rights Act. But ambitious reforms are needed to expand access, from online voting to same-day registration to reexamining why Tuesday remains the only day set aside for voting. Presidential leadership is needed to make even modest improvements in the stale status quo.
None of these three are easy or likely to solve the rot on their own. They deserve more detailed, repeated discussion from the president if they are going to be more than pablum. But they are worthy steps in the process of pulling our political culture back from the brink. The alternative is more dysfunction, division, and disillusion. And ironically, some of populist appeals from Trump & Co. feed off of voter frustration at the ineffectiveness of Washington. But their solution is more of the same. If you like government shutdowns and ideological gridlock, you’ll love President Ted Cruz.
The alternative vision is competing parties representing different philosophies but united by a belief that government can work to solve common problems. The presence of Paul Ryan in the speaker’s chair and Nikki Haley giving the official response offers reassurance that this vision is not yet dead in the Republican Party.
But the larger political shift will require relearning foundational civic truths that George Washington first offered up in his farewell address: “Citizens, by birth or choice... the name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles.” We are, of course, far more diverse than we were as a nation in 1796, but the same ideas still endure, as President Obama said, in those “voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed.”