Watch Barack Obama speak to the nation on Wednesday night from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia:
Obama’s choice of venues speaks volumes. At a time when many on the Left are disparaging the American Revolution as racist or built upon slavery, Obama chose to give his DNC 2020 convention speech at a museum that commemorates the ideas behind the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution.
Let’s be clear. Obama did not take us on a ride through a rosy and innocent American story in the way Donald Trump did at Mount Rushmore on July 4, 2020. The former president understands the moral complexity of the past. Three sentences into the speech he says:
I’m in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women — and even men who didn’t own property — the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal, and more free.
The American founding was not perfect. But Obama is unwilling to give up on its ideals. This has been a common thread running through Obama’s entire political career. It is also the spirit that motivated the men and women who were part of what Obama called “the early Civil Rights Movement.” These reformers, as Obama put it, “knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth.” They strove to “bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.” They did not abandon the founding ideals, but sought to fulfill them.
Obama painted Donald Trump and his administration as a threat to democracy:
But we should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy. We should expect that regardless of ego, ambition, or political beliefs, the president will preserve, protect, and defend the freedoms and ideals that so many Americans marched for and went to jail for; fought for and died for.
I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.
But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.
Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.
What is a “custodian of democracy?
At its most basic level, a custodian of democracy makes it easy for people to vote. Here is Obama:
Well, here’s the point: this president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.
But a thriving democracy also requires a leader who cultivates and models democratic virtues. For such a modern society to thrive, citizens need to learn how to live together with their differences. But not just any differences. A democratic community must be built upon human dignity, the celebration of truth, a belief in science and facts, and a commitment to empathy and decency.
When a leader of a democratic society weakens or seeks to damage this foundation it is our responsibility as citizens to say something about it–both in the public sphere and through the voting booth. In other words, a citizen is responsible for exposing and calling-out those who fail to exalt human dignity, those who refuse to expose lies, those who reject evidence-based arguments, and those who do not practice basic civility. Not everyone is required to share the same political views, but we all should be willing to live, work, speak, and think within such a democratic framework.
We need to reclaim such a society. A democracy needs “informed citizens” (as Obama, echoing the founders, called them in his speech). As Mary Ann Glendon once put it, “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.”
Because we all have our own views and opinions, a civil society requires conversation. We may never come to an agreement on what constitutes the “common good,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with one other. As author and activist Parker Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.”
The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. His description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is worth citing in full:
The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But argument are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents’ minds–something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.
Writers at the conservative National Review will, inevitably, argue over policy with writers at the progressive at Mother Jones. The editors of The New York Times are going to opine differently than the editors of The Wall Street Journal. These debates are good for democracy. But the failure to have these debates within a framework of evidence, facts, truth, and decency is harmful to our democratic life. Let’s call this failure “Trumpism.” And there are people on both the Left and the Right who deserve the moniker.