If you only read short summaries of President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University, you probably missed the thrust of his remarks, which was an extended argument against the political far left. With the exception of a handful of digressions and jokes, this case formed the spine of his remarks, which mounted a detailed defense of his political style combined with a rebuttal of his critics on the left.
1. The world has grown more fair and prosperous over the course of his adult life, especially in its racial equality. “America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college,” he began, repeating the line for emphasis. Dismissing the straw man of a “post-racial society,” an unrealistic expectation Obama noted he had never promised, he emphasized that opportunities for African-Americans have expanded across society:
In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant — at least not certain of them. There were no black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Very few black judges. Shoot, as Larry Wilmore pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former Bull Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time — he owns the team. (Laughter.) When I was graduating, the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. (Laughter.) Rap and hip hop were counterculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night, and Beyoncé runs the world. (Laughter.) We’re no longer only entertainers, we’re producers, studio executives. No longer small business owners — we’re CEOs, we’re mayors, representatives, Presidents of the United States.
Obama lays out the predicate in detail, because it’s the most important premise of his argument. Bernie Sanders has argued that “it’s too late for Establishment politics” — that progress is too meager to be worth continuing, and that a radical new course, a metaphorical “revolution,” is required to truly make a difference. Though he wouldn’t embrace a loaded term, Obama is making the case that the dreaded “Establishment politics” is working.
2. Political change is necessarily incremental. Not only is incremental progress working, but there is no other alternative. Obama cited the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation as imperfect political compromises. “They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule,” but they made the world better. The belief that compromise is immoral leads to distrust of the political mechanisms that actually can produce positive change, making those systems less effective as people lose hope in them:
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 purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.
3. Successful change can only be accomplished by persuading those who don’t share your beliefs. Obama invoked a police reform bill he helped pass through the Illinois state legislature, frankly confessing that the bill could not have passed if he hadn’t persuaded police to support it. It may have been true that police abuse was rampant, but by approaching the negotiation from a position of respect and empathy with the pressures faced by the well-intended members of law enforcement, he was able to build consensus. “Change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening as well,” he said. “In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.” Browbeating does not work:
The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s 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. That’s not just true in this country. It’s not a black or white thing. Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.
And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.
4. Protest is just one part of bringing change. Obama praises the role of demonstrations in bringing issues onto the political agenda, but insists that protest alone is useless unless it leads to negotiated political resolution:
You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing. … We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. …
Brittany Packnett, a member of the Black Lives Matter movement and Campaign Zero, one of the Ferguson protest organizers, she joined our Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Some of her fellow activists questioned whether she should participate. She rolled up her sleeves and sat at the same table with big city police chiefs and prosecutors. And because she did, she ended up shaping many of the recommendations of that task force. And those recommendations are now being adopted across the country — changes that many of the protesters called for. If young activists like Brittany had refused to participate out of some sense of ideological purity, then those great ideas would have just remained ideas. But she did participate. And that’s how change happens.
5. Democratic deliberation must be open. The hard work of persuading a majority to work with you means taking their concerns seriously. Open discourse means, rather than beginning from the assumption that your side represents tolerance and goodness and the opponents bigotry, demoralizing the debate where it is possible to do so. The spreading impulse on the left to shut down ideas they find offensive is counterproductive and undemocratic:
Our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.
So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.
This last point is especially interesting to me, since the growing strain of illiberalism on the left, which habitually tries to shut down opposing views on any identity-related questions, is somewhat of a hobbyhorse. I’m grateful for the hate-clicks as well as the proliferation of rebuttals that actually substantiate my argument. At the same time, this weekend’s address is at least the fourth time Obama has denounced political correctness. He first did so in a speech in September, again in an interview with George Stephanopoulos in November (“And so when I hear, for example, you know, folks on college campuses saying, ‘We’re not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas —’ you know, I think that’s a recipe for dogmatism”), and again in an interview with Steve Inskeep in December. While my criticisms of p.c. have generated many, many responses from the left, I have noticed the almost complete dearth of left-wing responses to Obama’s, which run along almost identical lines to my own. This seems odd because — I can say this without any suspicion of false modesty — Barack Obama is far more influential than I am. Every time Obama denounces the left’s practice of suppressing opposing views, I search the sources that defend (or deny) p.c. for outraged rebuttals and have found none. My suspicion is that this is because p.c.-niks rely so heavily on identity to discredit opposing views, it is convenient for them to identify opposition to p.c. with a white male, and highly inconvenient to identify it with a famous, liberal African-American. But I’m open to alternative, less ungenerous explanations for why Obama’s repeated attacks on p.c. have been met with such conspicuous silence.
In any case, Obama has concluded that the left, and especially the young left, has turned away in important respects from his political values. In the final year of his presidency, he has begun to defend his own ideals with increasing force and urgency.