Obama talks democracy, but won’t point fingers

President Barack Obama gave his first public speech Monday since leaving office. Talking to students at the University of Chicago, where he once taught, the former president mentioned a number of ways in which our democracy needs strengthening, as he has before.

But, typically, he stopped well short of making clear the reality that our democracy is threatened not merely by abstract trends, but by a deliberate and concerted campaign to undermine it.

Here’s what Obama said:

What is preventing us from tackling [issues like inequality and climate change] and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life. It has to do with the fact that because of things like political gerrymandering, our parties have moved further and further apart and it’s harder and harder to find common ground. Because of money in politics, special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don’t match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel.

Maybe more pernicious is people are not involved and they give up. As a consequence, we have some of the lowest voting rates of any democracy, and low participation rates then translate into a further gap between who’s governing us and what we believe.

The way to solve these problems, Obama continued, is for young people to “take leadership” and “get involved.”

It’s absolutely true that we won’t solve pressing substantive issues until we make our political system more responsive to ordinary Americans. But we also need to accurately explain what’s happening, which is that those who would benefit from less democracy are doing everything they can to restrict it, and to fight efforts to expand access.

That means the real way to solve these problems isn’t just through more political engagement in the abstract — though that’s great too — but rather through intense political pressure in opposition to anti-democratic policies, and in favor of pro-democracy reforms. So that, eventually, supporting voter ID or partisan gerrymandering or more influence for big donors becomes an electoral liability.

But people won’t understand that unless the leaders who they still listen to — and Obama is one of the few — say it clearly.

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