President Obama’s commencement speech today at Howard University firmly and repeatedly challenged the central message of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. (C-Span link offers video and full text.)
The president was not attacking Sanders’ ideology of fairness. But he was clearly separating himself from Sanders’ dogmatic insistence on revolutionary transformation.
If you want to make life fair, then you have to start with the world as it is.
The balance between idealism and pragmatism was clearly at the forefront of the president’s mind.
Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100% right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right and you still have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral security, but you will not get what you want.
This is one reason there has been somewhat of a class divide between Bernie and Hillary supporters. The “moral security” Obama refers to is an emotional and intellectual luxury if it doesn’t contribute to substantive change.
I’ve heard Bernie supporters say their movement should be the left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party — a curious sentiment, considering how much karma the GOP is currently paying off thanks to years of the Tea Party’s impassioned “moral security.”
All too often, righteous passion leads to angry cynicism, because progress never matches one’s righteous vision. Here, the president parrots Bernie’s language directly:
If you do not get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. That will lead to more cynicism, not participation — and less participation and a downward spiral of more injustice, anger and despair. And that has never been a source of progress. That is how we cheat ourselves of progress.
The president is tapping into one of Hillary’s main responses to Bernie. It’s not enough to provide critiques of “the rigged system,” you need a strategy to actually get things done.
We need, said the president, “Not just awareness, but action.”
You have to go through life with more than just passion for change. You need a strategy. I will repeat that. You have to have a strategy. Not just awareness but action. Not just hashtags but votes. You see, change requires more than talking, it requires a program and organizing.
But, the president reminds the young graduates, shifting from righteous idealism to pragmatic action requires patience — as well as an acceptance of incrementalism.
To shape our collective future [we need to] bend it in the direction of justice, freedom and equality.
The word “bend,” as in MLK’s famous line, is a reference to reality-based incrementalism. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Inherent in the concept of incrementalism is the concept of compromise. The guiding light is not whether you’ve righteously denounced “the whole rigged system.” It’s whether you’ve made the system better.
You know what? I will take better every time. I always tell my staff, better is good because you can consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.
Allies who strategically push you to go further can help consolidate gains; on the other hand, critics who do nothing but gripe about you “selling out” only weaken your position.
Those who pile on to popular cynical narratives effectively handicap our agents of change. Cynicism only breeds more cynicism — which undermines progress, leading to further cynicism.
And people wonder, how come Obama has not got this or that done? In 2014, only two out of five Americans turned out [to vote]. You do not think that made the difference in terms of the Congress I have got to deal with? You do not think that made a difference? What would have happened if you turned out at 50%, 60%,70% all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. Oh, what kind of reforms do we need and how do we have to do that? You know what? Just vote. It is math. If you had more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It is not that complicated.
When we righteously insist that “the system” is totally fucked up (rather than needing repairs, as per usual), we are not only doing the Right’s political bidding, we are succumbing to a “catastrophizing” mindset. There’s always work to be done, but…
I tell you this because it is important to note progress. I tell you this not to lull you into complacency but to spur you into action. Because there is still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel.
Pointing out things that have gotten better doesn’t always come naturally to Democrats. But failing to do so (and succumbing to a catastrophizing mindset) is a political failure.
America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college. Let me repeat. America is by almost every measure better. It is also better than when I took office. That is a different story. […] I wanted to start by opening your eyes to the moment you are in. If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born and you did not know ahead of time who you were going to be, what nationality, or gender, what race — whether you would be rich, poor, gay or straight, what faith you would be born into — you would not choose 100 years ago. You would not choose the 1950s, the 1960s, or the 1970s. You would choose right now. [...] As complicated and sometimes impractical as the challenges may seem, the truth is that your generation is better positioned than any before you to meet those challenges, to flip the script.
From the beginning, President Obama has been knocked for his associations, and his willingness to listen to others. From the Right, it was Reverend Wright — or shaking hands with Raul Castro. From the Left, it was Wall Street, or his military advisers.
This is one of the things I find most troubling about Bernie: his pointed disdain for the idea of caring what “the bad guys” have to say. His willingness to dismiss members of the franchise with whom he disagrees is a sure sign that his presidency would likely be one of high righteousness, low effectiveness.
Change requires more than just speaking out. It requires listening as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree. And being prepared to compromise.
When I was a state senator, I led Illinois’ first racial profiling law and one of the first laws in the nation requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. We were successful because early on I engaged with law enforcement. I did not say to them, you guys are so racist, you need to do something. And because we took the time to listen, we crafted legislation that was good for the police because it improved the trust and cooperation of the community, and it was good for the community who were less likely to be treated unfairly. And, I can say this unequivocally, without at least the acceptance of the police organization in Illinois, I could never have gotten those bills passed. Very simple. They would have blocked them.
Reminds me of his approach to dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Righteous liberals taunted him viciously for not going faster, or going alone, or for caring what the generals thought. Thank goodness he had the wisdom and patience to see the value of obtaining buy-in from the military. Now, instead of a fragile executive order, we have settled, permanent statutory change — for the better. It took time and effort, but that is what is known as “the penalty of democracy.”
The point is you need allies in a democracy. That is just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse.
Yes, that even means caring what a Kissinger has to say. (And no, Hillary did not call Kissinger her mentor; she merely said she would listen to him.)
In short, says our president, there’s certainly a place for blazing rhetoric, but it needs to be balanced with pragmatic, messy, imperfect action.
We remember Dr. King's soaring oratory. The power of his letter from a Birmingham jail. The march he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. And those two bills were not perfect, just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some call for freedom. Those milestones of progress were not perfect, and they do not make up for centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, or eliminate racism or provide 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better.