Barack Obama gave his final speech as the sitting president of the United States Tuesday night, and although over the past eight years I’ve found my personal politics to be at odds with many of his policies, his farewell address served, in my opinion, as a shining example of what American politics should be. Mind you, I am not suggesting that the man effectively embodied all the ideals he presented in his speech throughout his two terms in office—his successes and failures as a politician will stand on their own in that light—but his speech, and the emotion behind it, served as a testament to American optimism and passion: two things I believe in from the bottom of my heart.
Yes, he took the opportunity to pat himself on the back, often under the guise of congratulating those who supported him throughout his climb to the top of the American political machine, but more than that, he gave an eloquent account of his own beliefs, and argued in favor of recognizing each of our involvement in the political, social, and economic ups and downs Americans faced over the better part of the last decade. He walked the line, ensuring he presented the Democratic party in the best possible light and often taking thinly veiled jabs at some of Donald Trump’s platforms, but he also called for people to step out of their confirmation-bias bubbles. He told the American people that those with different points of view shouldn’t be seen as the enemy, and that we should all take the responsibility of being American citizens as seriously as we take the office of the president.
I don’t ask that all politicians share my unique set of beliefs, in fact, it feels like it’s grown increasingly hard to find one that does, but I do expect our politicians to bring their own beliefs to the table, and to argue in their favor with vigor. Last night, Barack Obama did just that.
“Regardless of the station we occupy, we have to try harder. To start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do, that they value hard work and family like we do, that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
Before you call me naïve and exclaim that this statement, and the sentiment behind it, was intended to push the political agenda that minorities are discriminated against in the United States, let me stop you. Of course it was, but it was also much more than that. Suggesting that both sides, Democrat and Republican, love this nation has somehow become an unusual sentiment in recent years. Both sides work so hard to vilify one another, such a basic common ground has evaporated from the political sphere. Surely the other side hates America, or freedom, or other races. Surely, our side is the only truly American one. Surely the communists on the left and the fascists on the right know only hatred and spite. Republicans can’t clap for a Democrat. Democrats can’t clap for a Republican.
“It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that we, the people, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.”
Those unalienable rights the president spoke of are the basis of so many of our political disagreements—and that’s by design. We’re supposed to argue, debate, even bicker. Our founding fathers did it before us, and the kids we see “dabbing” in pictures of their fathers being sworn into office will one day grow up to do the same. There’s a poetry to the statement, “while self evident, have never been self-executing” that, again, calls on the American public to start paying attention to the way their corner of the world is being governed. While Obama may have made that statement regarding the continued civil rights effort being advanced by the Left, it’s a message that needs to reverberate in the hearts and minds of all Americans. It is our responsibility to decide what we feel is right, and to work to advance that cause.
“What a radical idea. A great gift that our founders gave to us: the freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.”
The American dream has always been built on the idea that each and every American has the right to bust their ass in pursuit of their dream. I’m not so naïve as to believe that it hasn’t been easier for some of us than it has been for others, but even those that started in the most disadvantaged of positions have risen up via a solid grip on their own boot straps and the inherent opportunity that is being American. Placing an emphasis on the sweat and toil, rather than the reward, is something that is sorely needed on both sides of the aisle. Although the Democrats have become the party of entitlement, so too has my generation been derided as self-entitled, lazy, and worthless. If there are millennials among us that have the drive and determination to make their own dreams a reality, I have no reason to suspect that Democrats are universally guilty of living up to their own stereotype.
“For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.”
That acknowledgement, though brief and under-emphasized, is really all that I ask. The Democratic party, which was once the party that claimed to champion the working-class mom and dad, have left behind millions of voters in recent years because of their choice to emphasize only the plight of the urban voter. Again, I’m not suggesting that there isn’t plight there to be emphasized, but the idea that only those who fit nicely into a categorical minority column can be suffering from systemic issues is unapologetically ignorant. My hometown of Bennington, Vermont has been torn apart by drugs over the past 10 years, and those who are losing their livelihoods, and indeed their lives, as a result of being along the supply line of drugs coming into and out of Canada are praying for relief, or just a little support. Many of them are not minorities, nor do they live in a dense population center, but their struggle, their plight, doesn’t go away because we ignore it.
“The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste—all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”
I don’t care if I didn’t vote for this guy. He’s right. Confirmation bias, as I’ve written about before, has become a way of life for so many of us. I’m not talking down to anyone; I’m as guilty as the next guy of “unfollowing” people on social media because their views are offensive to my sensibilities, unknowingly whittling down the content that reaches me until all I get is affirmation that my views are right and just. The point of a democracy isn’t to hide from opposing views, it’s to mash them together until something that’s better than the sum of its parts comes out of the mess.
“So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
Again, as partisan as President Obama may have been, as partisan as portions of his speech even were, this call wasn’t directed solely at those who share the man’s ideologies. This call to action is a basic tenet of our democracy, and one many of us have ignored in recent years. We no longer ask what we can do for our country, and, at least in my mind, it’s about time we started asking again.
I have not loved some of the policies put in place by Barack Obama. I’ve railed against his use of executive orders, I’ve commiserated with people who were negatively affected by Obamacare, and I’ve even genuinely questioned his decision-making ability at times, particularly in regard to national defense, but I’m going to say something that would cause gasps in many of the social circles I run in:
I genuinely believe Barack Obama cares about America. That doesn’t mean he was always right, and it doesn’t have to. I’m wrong all the time and I would bleed on a flag to keep the stripes red.
We have to stop assuming those we disagree with are inherently evil for it. We have to start respecting the debate, and our opponents within it. Choose teams, choose sides, but let’s make a late new year’s resolution together now, if you’re so inclined to do so with me:
In 2017, I’ll try to respect those I disagree with. I’ll stop using my love for America as a reason to hate those who envision a different means to the same ends. I’ll remember, in the words of our departing president, “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: citizen.”
Image courtesy of the Associated Press
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