That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work

Obama gave a talk at the University of Illinois today. The Atlantic has the full transcript.

I’m here today because this is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us, as citizens of the United States, need to determine just who it is that we are, just what it is that we stand for. And as a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president but as a fellow citizen, I am here to deliver a simple message, and that is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.

Now some of you may think I’m exaggerating when I say this November’s elections are more important than any I can remember in my lifetime. I know politicians say that all the time. I have been guilty of saying it a few times, particularly when I was on the ballot. But just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire. And it’s not as if we haven’t had big elections before, or big choices to make in our history. The fact is, democracy has never been easy and our Founding Fathers argued about everything. We waged a Civil War. We overcame depression. We’ve lurched from eras of great progressive change to periods of retrenchment.

But we’ve never had anyone this bad squatting at the top before.

Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line. There’s a reason why progress hasn’t been easy and why throughout our history, every two steps forward seems to sometimes produce one step back. Each time we painstakingly pull ourselves closer to our founding ideals, that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, the ideals that say every child should have opportunity and every man and woman in this country who is willing to work hard should be able to find a job and support a family and pursue the American dream, the ideals that say we have the responsibility to care for the sick and infirm and we have a responsibility to conserve the amazing bounty, the natural resources of this country and of this planet for future generations—each time we have gotten closer to those ideals, somebody somewhere has pushed back. The status quo pushes back.

Sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change. More often it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical, because it helps them maintain the status quo, and keep their power, and keep their privilege. And you happen to be coming of age during one of those moments. It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He is just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years. A fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but is also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.

He notes that things are not going well right now.

They’re subsidizing corporate polluters with taxpayer dollars, allowing dishonest lenders to take advantage of veterans and students and consumers again. They’ve made it so that the only nation on Earth to pull out of the global climate agreement—it’s not North Korea, it’s not Syria, it’s not Russia or Saudi Arabia—it’s us. The only country! There are a lot of countries in the world. We’re the only ones. They are undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia. What happened to the Republican Party? Its central organizing principle in foreign policy was the fight against communism, and now they are cozying up to the former head of the KGB, actively blocking legislation that would defend our elections from Russian attack. What happened? Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act has already cost more than 3 million Americans their health insurance. And if they are still in power next fall, you better believe they are coming at it again—they’ve said so.

In a healthy democracy, there are some checks and balances on this kind of behavior, this kind of inconsistency, but right now, there’s nothing. Republicans who know better in Congress—and they’re there, they are quoted saying, ‘We know this is kind of crazy’—are still bending over backwards to shield this behavior from scrutiny or accountability or consequence, seem utterly unwilling to find the backbone to safeguard the institutions that make our democracy work.

And by the way, the claim that everything will turn out okay because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders—that is not a check. I’m being serious here. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. These people aren’t elected. They are not accountable. They are not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that is coming out of this White House and then saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re preventing the other 10 percent.’ That’s not how things are supposed to work! This is not normal. These are extraordinary times, and they are dangerous times.

But the good news is: in a couple of months we (Americans) get to vote.

It should not be Democratic or Republican, it should not be a partisan issue, to say that we do not pressure the Attorney General or the FBI to use the criminal-justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents, or to explicitly call on the Attorney General to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up. I’m not making that up, that’s not hypothetical. It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press, because they say things or publish stories we don’t like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people. It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans. We are supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them. We are supposed to stand up to discrimination. And we sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?

He says we need to bring people together.

When I say bring people together, I mean all of our people. This whole notion that has sprung up recently about Democrats need to choose between trying to appeal to white working-class voters or voters of color and women and LGBT Americans, that’s nonsense. I don’t buy that. I got votes from every demographic. We won because we reached out to everybody and [by] competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote, and that’s what we’ve got to do in this election and every election after that. And we can’t do that if we immediately disregard what others have to say from the start, because they are not like us, because they are white or they’re black or a man or a woman, or they’re gay or they’re straight. If we think that somehow there is no way they can understand how I’m feeling, and therefore don’t have any standing to speak on certain matters, because we’re only defined by certain characteristics. That doesn’t work if you want a healthy democracy. We can’t do that if we traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy.

He says better is good, better isn’t everything, it isn’t the absolute, but it’s good – better is better.

The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides, is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many. That’s what this moment’s about. That has to be the answer. You cannot sit back and wait for a savior. You cannot doubt, because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate. This is not a rock concert. This is not Coachella. We don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hardworking people who are accountable and who have America’s best interests at heart. And they’ll step up, and they’ll join our government, and they’ll make things better if they have support.

You have to vote.

If you are really concerned about how the criminal-justice system treats African Americans, the best way to protest is to vote, not just for senators and representatives, but for mayors and sheriffs and state legislators. Do what they just did in Philadelphia and Boston, and elect state’s attorneys and district attorneys who are looking at issues in a new light, who realize that the vast majority of law enforcement do the right thing in a really hard job, and we just need to make sure all of them do.

If you’re tired of politicians who offer nothing but thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting, you’ve got to do what the Parkland kids are doing. Some of them aren’t even eligible to vote yet. They’re out there working to change minds and registering people. And they’re not giving up until we have a Congress that sees your lives as more important than a campaign check from the NRA. You’ve got to vote.

If you support the #MeToo movement, you’re outraged by stories of sexual harassment and assault, inspired by the women who’ve shared them, you’ve got to do more than retweet a hashtag. You’ve got to vote.

Part of the reason women are more vulnerable in the workplace is because not enough women are bosses in the workplace, which is why we need to strengthen and enforce laws that protect a woman in the workplace, not just from harassment, but from discrimination in hiring and promotions, and not getting paid the same amount for doing the same work. That requires laws, laws get passed by legislators. You’ve got to vote!

When you vote, you’ve got the power to make it easier to afford college, and harder to shoot up a school. When you vote, you’ve got the power to make sure a family keeps its health insurance, you could save somebody’s life. When you vote, you’ve got the power to make sure white nationalists don’t feel emboldened to march with their hoods off, or their hoods on, in Charlottesville in the middle of the day. Thirty minutes. Thirty minutes of your time—is democracy worth that?

H/t George Felis

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