As the transfer approaches from a president who has graced the White House to one who is getting there by the basest of means, it is the time to remember, and celebrate, the former’s final State of the Union Address, delivered on the 12th of January 2016. Barack Obama called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” This, he said, was “the most important thing I want to say tonight.” He was delivering one of the most forthright presidential speeches ever, in hindsight one loaded with prophetic foreboding.
The last time a president warned the country in such stark terms was when Eisenhower, in his farewell speech in 1961, raised the specter of the military-industrial complex whose “economic, political, even spiritual” influence was “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” More than fifty year on, another outgoing president warns that democracy needs to be salvaged.
In Washington, explained the president, elected representatives are “trapped” by “imperatives” and “rancor” which they dislike but cannot get out of.
The imperative is that of raising money, “dark money” he had called it in his 2015 Address. That pulls everyone into the rancor of having to outshout each other.
When Washington is unable to act and turns into a shouting match, the next bastion to fall is trust. “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”
The reason trust breaks down is that “those with money and power gain greater control over the decisions” that are made in Washington. “And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes.”
And further: “Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”
The rejection of politics as usual in 2016 was a reaction against corruption and gridlock in Washington. Since Eisenhower’s warning, corporate America has added organisational power to its already formidable economic power. Through a vast network of partisan PACs, think-tanks, media organisations and lobbying groups, it has won control over the setting of political agendas. In the age of mega-expensive politics, candidates depend on sponsors to fund permanent campaigns. When big money is allowed to transgress into politics, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be — those they wish to fund — and what they can decide once in office – that which is acceptable to those who hold the purse-strings. The representatives, or most of them, may not be personally corrupt, but the system in which they work is one of deep collusion between big money and politics.
In the recent campaign, Mr. Trump could rightly call for the “swamp to be drained.” Those flocking to his side were the bearers of righteous anger. But it was Mr. Obama who had explained why. The holders of office in Washington, in Congress in particular, are not free to make policies for the public good.
Again, the president was direct and radical. Since their representatives in Washington are trapped, “it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”
In this election, it was perhaps the best funded candidate who lost, but both sides were bankrolled by outside interests, as were most of the other contests across the land. American elections are getting more expensive for every turn.
It ought to be possible for Congress to extricate itself from the trap it has fallen into. The members hate it: the never ending campaigning, the absence of civility, the constant raising of money, the kowtowing to richness, the looking over their shoulders to the moneymen when they vote. The people despise it, as they have now shown decisively. Democracy does not need mega-expensive campaigning. It is a misunderstanding that politicians chase money, it is money that chases politicians.
Again, in his remarkable speech, the president called it correctly. Appealing beyond Congress to all Americans: “Changes in our political process will only happen when the American people demand it.” Well, the election now over, it is to be hoped that it is understood in Washington that that is exactly what has been demanded.
In this speech, which, his usual eloquence notwithstanding, was raw with naked honesty about the state of democracy in America, Mr. Obama promised “that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen.” Americans ignored Eisenhower. Be it that they now accepts Obama’s warning – and also his offer to continue working to “fix our politics.”