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Barack Obama just reminded us what we’ve lost

What Obama’s first big post-presidency speech got right — and wrong — about the backlash to liberalism.

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Barack Obama speaks during the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa.
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Former President Barack Obama’s Tuesday speech in South Africa, his first major address since leaving office, tried to answer perhaps the biggest current question in the world: Can democracy as we know it survive?

The goal of the speech was to define what Obama sees as the central dynamic in 21st-century politics. It’s a battle between a hopeful, egalitarian political vision, embodied by 20th-century figures like Nelson Mandela (in whose honor the speech was given), and a new wave of right-wing populists and ambitious authoritarians.

This backlash, in Obama’s diagnosis, is wrapped up in both legitimate grievances (anger about the 2008 financial crisis) and less legitimate ones (white male anxiety about social change). The central challenge of modern democratic politics, he argues, is defeating this backlash — a fight he’s hopeful about winning.

Most of the speech is spot-on. But it suffers from a characteristic Obama flaw: over-generosity toward his political opponents. The former president gives too much leeway to the legitimate grievances of right-wing populists, particularly overemphasizing the role of economic grievances in their rise and underplaying how committed these groups’ supporters are to bigotry and xenophobia. The result is a speech that advocates trying to change the minds of many people whose minds are most likely unchangeable.

Obama never once uttered the word “Trump” in the speech, but the president looms over it like the lettering on one of his hotels. This is both in the content — Donald Trump is a living, breathing avatar of the politics Obama decried — and in the tone. You could never imagine Trump giving a speech so intellectually alive, one whose flaws are subtle rather than glaringly obvious.

This dynamic makes watching Obama’s speech, or even reading the text, a deeply melancholy experience. You think about its ideas, appreciating what’s right and arguing with what’s wrong — and then are struck by just how far America has fallen since this man was president.

When you put all this together, you get a speech that’s at once deeply valuable, deeply frustrating, and deeply sad.

How Barack Obama sees the world

Obama’s speech begins, appropriately, with nostalgia. He fondly recalls the heady days of the late ’80s and early ’90s — when Soviet totalitarianism and South African apartheid collapsed in rapid succession.

“Do you remember that feeling? It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable,” Obama said. “You felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit — that all that was crumbling before our eyes.”

He then recited all of the very real progress the world has made in the following years — a massive decline in poverty, the lowest percentage of people dying from war in modern history, a majority of the world’s governments becoming democracies for the first time ever. Fundamentally, Obama attributes this all to the triumph of a very particular kind of liberal political vision — one that prioritized individual rights, limited the power of the state over the individual, and saw all people as fundamental moral equals regardless of their gender or race.

“The progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate,” Obama says. “It doesn’t mean that vision was always victorious, but it set the terms, the parameters; it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress, and it continued to propel the world forward.”

But this triumph of egalitarian politics was, in Obama’s retelling, short-lived. The rise of violent Islamism, Russia’s return to authoritarianism, and China’s growing assertiveness as a global power each posed a kind of threat to the liberal consensus. But things really started to take a downward turn after the 2008 financial crisis, which led to a rise of xenophobic populism even inside liberal democracy’s Western strongholds:

Perhaps more than anything else, the devastating impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in which the reckless behavior of financial elites resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people all around the world, made all the previous assurances of experts ring hollow. ... The credibility of the international system, the faith in experts in places like Washington or Brussels, all that had taken a blow. And a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

In the West, Obama argues, this spirit has taken hold among “many people who lived outside of the urban cores,” tapping into “fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.”

The global backlash to progress has created a fundamental fault line in global politics, a return to the kind of ideological conflict we haven’t seen since the Cold War. Obama sees a world-defining clash between the people who want to extend the progress of the late 20th century and the people who want to reverse it — to return to a pre-modern politics defined by strongman leaders and “hostile competition between tribes and races and religions.”

The challenge of our time, in Obama’s eyes, is defeating this backlash — which can be accomplished by reversing the economic inequality that created the conditions for such a backlash, and forthrightly confronting racism and discrimination wherever we encounter it.

Is Obama right?

In the press and among pundits, Obama’s speech was widely covered as an extended, veiled jab at Trump. That’s obviously part of it, but there’s a lot more to the speech — for better and for worse.

There’s a lot to like in the worldview Obama laid out. He’s absolutely correct that there’s been unparalleled progress for humanity in the past several decades, and equally correct to link those to the spread of democracy, mixed economies, and ideals of equality. He’s right that there’s a major backlash to social progress surfacing around the world, and right to say that confronting it is a major — if not the major — task of current politics.

And some of his proposed solutions are genuinely interesting. He called for consideration of a universal basic income, an idea with the potential to end poverty everywhere, and for a “review of our workweek,” a vague phrase that looked like radical proposals such as a four-day workweek. These are the kinds of large-scale policy ideas needed to deal with the hyper-inequality that characterizes our era, and it’s refreshing to hear someone with Obama’s stature talking this grandly.

The problem with the speech, though, is it gets the sources of the backlash to progress a bit wrong. Part of the problem is lumping things together: The spread of jihadism, the rise of Vladimir Putin, and support for far-right parties in the West all have very different causes. It’s a little too pat to treat them all as part of a unified “backlash” to social progress and globalization.

A bigger problem, though, is the centrality of the 2008 financial crash in Obama’s narrative. While the Great Recession was catastrophic in human and economic terms, and damaging to political parties in power at the time, there’s surprisingly little evidence that it contributed significantly to the problems Obama is discussing. Far-right populism in the West, in particular, had been around for decades before the crash — and didn’t gain too much electorally in the immediate wake of the crash.

In Europe, the surge in support for far-right parties really kicked off around 2015 — when refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other places began flowing into Europe in large numbers. In the United States, close parsing of the data shows that a recent rise in anti-minority sentiment had very little to do with the financial crisis.

Multiple studies, using several different surveys, have shown that overall levels of racial resentment were virtually unchanged by the economic crash of 2008,” UC Irvine’s Michael Tesler writes at the Monkey Cage. “Some data even suggests that racial prejudice slightly declined during the height of economic collapse in the fall of 2008. The evidence is pretty clear, then, that economic concerns [were] not driving racial resentment in the Obama Era.”

Instead, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the backlash Obama is concerned with reflects cultural resentments and prejudice. White Westerners are flocking to anti-immigrant and racially hostile parties because they feel that their status, their privilege, is threatened. It’s less that economic struggles are making people racist, and more that developments that threaten white privilege — such as large-scale nonwhite immigration and the election of one Barack Obama — has sparked a racist backlash.

Obama shies away from this diagnosis of the problem, seemingly because he wants to see the best in people. “Democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view,” he says. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours.” At the end of the speech, he suggests that this idea — people can be persuaded not to hate — should become the cornerstone of our politics:

[Mandela] reminds us that: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.” Love comes more naturally to the human heart; let’s remember that truth. Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on earth so that in 100 years from now, future generations will look back and say, “They kept the march going — that’s why we live under new banners of freedom.”

The available evidence, sadly, suggests this isn’t entirely true. Today’s backlash politics isn’t being pioneered by people ignorant of the ideals of 20th-century liberalism; it’s coming from people who are steeped in them, and choose to center their ideal political movements on tearing down those ideals.

A universal basic income might well be a good idea as a matter of economic policy — I personally think it’s a great one — but it’s unlikely to make European Christians much friendlier to Muslims. Nor is it going to persuade hardcore Trump supporters that mass Latino immigration is good for the United States.

For much of his presidency, Obama tried to see the best in his Republican opponents — to compromise with them, to transcend the “red and blue America” dichotomy. This approach foundered after Democrats lost Congress, as a united Republican opposition simply obstructed whatever Obama wanted to do. Obama was eventually forced to stop trying to compromise with Republicans and start fighting them.

Yet when it comes to the global backlash against progress, Obama is endorsing the same failed playbook from his early presidency. His impulses are admirable; to have gone through eight years of the presidency without losing your ability to see the best in your opponents takes a strength of character I’m sure I wouldn’t have. But Obama’s politics of compromise isn’t enough in a moment that calls for a politics of combat.

The ultimate sadness of Obama’s speech

Ultimately, though, my problems with Obama’s speech are the kinds of disagreements that are worth having. Political science, history, political strategy — these are subjects we should be debating. Obama’s speech may not be right on everything, but it’s a good-faith contribution to a series of important arguments about the big questions in 21st-century politics.

Meanwhile, the current president was, on the same day as Obama’s speech, busy lying about misspeaking during a fawning meeting with Vladimir Putin. And that contrast makes Obama’s speech kind of hard to watch.

You don’t have to agree with Obama’s policies or approach to politics to recognize that he’s an intellectually serious, thoughtful guy. When he speaks, he puts care into his words and tries to convey his particular worldview honestly and clearly. Trump’s rhetoric, by contrast, is barely coherent, peppered with crude insults and casual musings about violence.

Trump’s defining characteristic, as a public speaker, is frequent and transparently political lying. The New York Times compared Trump’s record on truth-telling to Obama’s and found a huge discrepancy: “In his first 10 months, Trump told nearly six times as many falsehoods as Obama did during his entire presidency.” The result is that presidential rhetoric is now fundamentally suspect; when the president speaks, it makes more sense to assume what he’s saying isn’t true than to do the reverse. A baseline level of good faith and decency in American public life has, at least for the time being, simply been wiped away.

Listening to Obama give his first major post-presidency speech, then, isn’t just an experience of engaging with ideas. It’s a brutal reminder of just how much we’ve lost — and how quickly we’ve lost it.

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