Barack Obama took to the stage in Chicago to bid us farewell. He was following a tradition begun by George Washington whom he quoted. Employing his unique oratorical skill, his message contained both an expected list of accomplishments, a sober discussion of the “state of our democracy” and a reaffirmation of his faith in the future. “Yes we can.” His words, and of course his style, stood in sharp relief against his successor’s coarse news event the following day. So much has changed since the president began his term eight years ago. A just released essay by Pew Research’s President Michael Dimok reviews and puts some statistical meat on the bones of what’s happened. Some of those changes reflect the advance of technology (for example neither the iPhone or iPad existed when Obama started campaigning); some are products of a hardening partisan divide.
Obama hasn’t lost his hope, but is clear headed about where we stand and the challenges that lie ahead. Some of them come directly from the ideological shifts that Dimok details, and also from the fact that we have yet to adjust to the social and economic impact of technology and wide scale automation. A clear majority, 60%, of Americans expect that in the years to come robots and computers will be carry out much of the work now done by humans. Obama underscored this saying, “…the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” Of course, this isn’t something happening in the distant future. A recent NY Times article noted, “A century ago New York Harbor employed 40,000 longshoremen, who unloaded ships with hook and sling and brawn [think On the Waterfront]. Today, the entire workforce is just under 3,400 longshoremen, many perched behind the controls of cranes and straddle carriers.” While obviously not happening all at once, the current workforce is less than 10% of what it was, a loss of 36,000 jobs just in one location.
Obama said this will require “a change in the social compact.” Undoubtedly so, but instead of moving in that direction many people, encouraged by self-serving – and I believe irresponsible – politicians, are in denial. Donald Trump’s promises to bring back manufacturing and touting his pre-inauguration successes completely bypasses the fact that, even if restored or maintained, those plants will employ far fewer workers than was once the case. The longshoremen story is not an outlier but a reflection of what’s happening all over. Just look at how technology has automated our own lives. The computer on which I am typing and through which I receive my daily digital “newspapers” is a manifestation of that reality. Welcome to my paperless life. It’s been over twenty years since I employed a secretary. I opt for self-check wherever it’s offered, pump my own gas, use an ATM to withdraw cash and my mobile phone to make deposits. Like many of you, I purchase more books and goods on Amazon than from all the retailers in my area combined. Sure Amazon employs a lot of people in their fulfillment centers but far fewer than might have been the case even a decade ago. It’s a trend that will continue. Very soon a drone rather than a UPS driver will likely deliver to my doorstep.
Perhaps one of the most far reaching finding of the Pew study reflects on something will all sense anecdotally but whose impact we may not have given enough attention: super partisanship. More than ever before people are lining up on virtually all issues along party lines. That has trend solidified in the Obama years. This doesn’t negate regional and economic factors entirely, but what my party says – and that tends to be fairly monolithic relative to issues – is where I stand. We’ve all noticed that fewer legislators and executives share a common middle – there few if any liberal Republicans or conservative Democratic officeholders. This suggests less, often no, compromise, but doesn’t totally explain why. In former times a Congress member could veer away from the “party line” on individual issues. She or he had some measure of independence because voters were diverse and broadly defined enough not to be threatening. That’s no longer true as exemplified in the relatively new threat of them “being primaried” back home. Today few dare to waver because their constituents have become so single minded.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we now face a polarization crisis. Effective governance is predicated on the ability to compromise. Obama’s presidency has been badly wounded by six years of increasing gridlock. Donald Trump will have Republican majorities in both houses, but if he loses them or one of them in 2018 he, and most importantly we, will face the same problem. Majority rule is clearly one of democracy’s attributes, but so too is giving force and voice to minorities, political and otherwise. And to different viewpoints. Obama included his concerns about this in outlining threats to our democracy, something that may be self-evident but, “have never been self-executing”. Here is some of what he said:
“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles…surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, 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 accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”
And to my concern he added, “…without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.” I’ve written about this before, about our becoming religious-like political fundamentalists, claimers of the singular and only truth. If we continue to buy into this self-focused vanity, you can kiss all progress goodbye. Add to that learning which involves and depends on a broadening of ideas and an inquisitiveness that super partisanship seeks to undermine and ultimately crush.
Don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting that there aren’t some things about which we can’t or shouldn’t compromise, some values that aren’t worth fighting and even dying for. The point is that not everything, in fact a very limited number of things, fall into that do or die category. Political scientists and ultimately historians will be dissecting the reasons for this ultra-polarization. Each of us can make our own list, but I don’t think we have the luxury of time in addressing the why. We urgently need to focus on what we can and must do about it. We won’t be helped very much by the incoming president who seems more interested in widening the divide than in, to use Lyndon Johnson’s words, “reasoning together”. Nor can we depend on the current class of elected officials, particularly legislators, who have succumbed to the kind of ugly partisanship that has become the problem.
Moving toward the conclusion Obama gave us some direction. “It falls to each of us,” he said, “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 all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands.” We know what’s happened here, and only we can address and fix it. Voting is important -- no it’s essential – but opening up a dialogue outside our bubble and listening as much, if not more, than talking is perhaps the only way forward. I’ll deeply miss President Barack Obama both for who is and for the huge step forward that he represented on taking office and beyond. For certain much of his legacy is under immediate threat, but his words, including those in his farewell address cannot be erased. They should not be forgotten and, speaking for myself, they never will.