On the third night of the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama addressed the nation from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. In what’s being described as a “stark, sober address” intended to frighten Americans about the dangers of a second Trump term, the former president took a moment to acknowledge the hopelessness and cynicism that has become so prevalent in today’s political discourse:
“Look, I understand why many Americans are down on government. The way the rules have been set up and abused in Congress make it easy for special interests to stop progress. Believe me, I know. I understand why a white factory worker who’s seen his wages cut or his job shipped overseas might feel like the government no longer looks out for him, and why a Black mother might feel like it never looked out for her at all. I understand why a new immigrant might look around this country and wonder whether there’s still a place for him here; why a young person might look at politics right now, the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and crazy conspiracy theories and think, what’s the point?”
Now, I’m not a factory worker, a Black mother, or a new immigrant, so I can’t speak for them, but Obama’s assessment of why each of those people may be “down on government” seems more or less accurate. Factory workers do feel betrayed, Black people in general have good reason to think the government never cared about them, and it stands to reason that new immigrants would feel unwelcome given the current administration’s overt hostility towards them.
Obama’s explanation for why young people have grown jaded, however, is far less convincing. In fact, it’s completely made up. As a fairly young person myself who discusses current affairs on a literal daily basis, I can assert with great confidence that young people today aren’t bitter about politics because of “the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies, and crazy conspiracy theories.” They’re bitter because of the failed presidency, and tone-deaf post-presidency, of Barack Obama.
Millennials such as myself remember what it was like to feel optimistic about politics. We first felt this sense of hope in 2008 when Obama first ran for president. We created a grassroots movement behind his campaign, carried him to the Democratic nomination in what initially seemed like a Quixotic battle against the Clintonian Democratic establishment, and voted for him in droves in November, propelling him to a landslide victory. And what did all of this hope, and effort, and enthusiasm get us, even when we won? Romneycare. 2016, after a hugely disappointing Obama era, most of the young people who supported him twice, as well as a new generation of even younger voters, became equally involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign, which the Democratic Party conspired against in favor of Hillary Clinton, the very person the youth rejected in favor of Obama eight years prior. When she lost to Donald Trump, and Sanders ran again this time, yet another crop of young people supported him in overwhelming numbers. This time, it seemed there were enough of them to finally win, until, once again, Barack Obama, the man the older millennials invested their hopes in twelve years ago, intervened in the eleventh hour to align the party against the Sanders campaign, once again crushing the candidate that the youth had rallied behind.
In short, that’s why so many young people are “down on government.” It’s not because politics is too mean, or too circus-like, or that there are too many conspiracy theories to keep track of. It’s because young people invested their hopes in Barack Obama, and he failed them.
“Well, here’s the point: This president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote does not matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers until it’s no democracy at all.”
While his assessment of youth apathy and cynicism was undoubtedly deceptive, this paragraph is pure Orwellian propaganda.
First, the premise is false. Anyone with any political understanding knows that there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington, D.C. that serves to protect and maintain the status quo. To classify “this president and those in power” as the sole beneficiaries of “keeping things the way they are” is simply dishonest. Obama’s subsequent claim that Republicans seek to depress and suppress the vote by depressing and disempowering the electorate is fair enough, but of course, Democrats have their own underhanded means of protecting their power, just as Republicans do.
In fact, I could very easily rewrite this segment of the speech to describe how the DNC protects its own interests at the expense of the common good. It would go something like this:
Well here’s the point - the Democratic establishment - those who benefit from keeping things the way they are - they are counting on your support. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to blackmail you into voting for them, and to convince you that your vote matters when it really doesn’t. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers until it’s no democracy at all.
Notice I didn’t have to change much at all. Because as far as political strategy is concerned, the only real difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the Republicans sell despair and the Democrats sell false hope. Republicans overtly encourage people to shun civic responsibility altogether and think only of themselves, whereas Democrats manipulate their base into participating in masturbatory dead-end exercises of meaningless civic engagement, i.e., voting for Democrats.
When we got involved, got inspired, and mobilized to elect the last Democratic president, did that stop the economy from being “skewed to the wealthy and well connected?” Did it stop people from “falling through the cracks” of our for-profit market based healthcare system? Did it protect our democracy from undue influence by oligarchs and demagogues? Of course not. If it had, the Wall St. criminals who tanked the economy would be in jail, we’d have at least a public option, and we wouldn’t have President Donald J. Trump.
And so when Obama addresses these issues, he speaks as though he were never the president; as though he were never in a position to prove to young people that government could in fact work for them; as if he was never entrusted with the task of renewing people’s faith in politics as a means for enacting positive change; as if he never rallied his base behind a campaign slogan of “Yes, We Can,” and as if he never let them down.
At this point, the only people still fawning over Barack Obama’s empty rhetoric and revisionist historicizing are those who don’t care how empty and revisionist it actually is. The liberal class’ privilege allows them to be hypnotized by Obama’s eloquence, charisma, and “classiness,” and to conveniently ignore both his failures as president and his inability to acknowledge them in his post-presidency. They pontificate about how much they “miss having a president who can speak in complete sentences,” as if complete sentences alone are of material benefit to poor and working class people struggling to make ends meet.
In 2008, Obama’s base of support was an idealistic coalition of multiracial young people brimming with excitement over his aspirational vision. Twelve years later, his speeches resonate only with those who can afford to revel in their superficiality. This much is obvious to anyone who’s not already in the tank for the Democrats, but it hasn’t seemed to dawn on Obama himself one bit. The lack of self awareness in this speech is a perfect example of why Democrats are so loathed by so many, and why they’re always the last ones to learn just how unpopular they are.
The rise of Donald Trump is an unfortunate but undeniable consequence of Obama’s failure to deliver on the promise of “hope and change.” If Barack Obama is too prideful, or too insulated from reality, to admit this to himself, it’s about time Democrats start admitting this to each other, because this whole convention gave off major 2016 vibes. We saw an elitist party basking in its own perceived moral and intellectual superiority while making no substantive policy pitches to anyone who they fear may be on the verge of giving up and staying home in November. Speaker after speaker stressed the importance of voting by insisting our democracy might fall if we don’t. Never did anyone stop and ask themselves why they should expect people to feel so invested in a “democracy” whose political outcomes have rendered 63% of Americans unable to afford a $500 emergency. Sure, democracy is nice for people like Julia Louis Dreyfus, whose roasting of Donald Trump on the convention’s final night went over predictably well with comfy #resistance liberals, but what good is it to everyone else if they don’t get anything out of it except the opportunity to vote for sleazy politicians who don’t look out for them?
This country is battered, broken, beaten down, and ready to throw in the towel. This was true four years ago, and it may be even more true now. The unfulfilled promise of the Obama years is a big part of why that is, a big part of why Trump was elected in 2016, and a big part of why America might just double down on despair in 2020.