Former President Barack Obama has largely stayed out of the political spotlight since ceding the office to President Trump in 2017. Sometimes, however, he weighs in on politics in eloquent and important ways.
He did so recently at an Obama Foundation event, where he weighed in on cancel culture and “wokeness.” His message resonates well with me and I conjecture that it probably works with segments of the “exhausted majority” I discussed in a past article.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you,“ President Obama said.
He is correct. This placing people in good or bad, black and white boxes does more damage than good. It is important to recognize that humans are intrinsically flawed - that they make mistakes, sometimes innocuous and sometimes serious. Although holding individuals accountable for these mistakes is important, “accountability” becomes a cloudy concept with guilt and victimization sprinkled in between.
“Cancel culture” is popular on the internet and within activist movements. This type of absolutist thinking is common on college campuses, which can be hotbeds for this activism. It is reflected in academic subjects such as critical race theory and gender studies. And while these subjects are important for placing a critical eye on our institutions, this approach of “compromise is morally unacceptable” puts activists in a difficult position to enact true reform and costs them some legitimacy along the way.
If you are doing the “cancelling”, cancel culture itself feels empowering. It makes you feel smart and victorious and levels a sort of superiority over who you’re arguing with. It makes activists feel good - like they are on the right side of history and therefore should be uncompromising for the sake of being correct. Taking to the streets is empowering and glamorous. Criticizing liberal democracy is “sexy.”
Working within the limits of liberal democracy is seen as taking the “spineless” route and selling out to corporate interests. Believing in the legitimacy of a liberal democracy and taking incremental steps towards progress is seen as “not enough”, but the alternative is a stalemate of opposing, unyielding sides.
The Left needs better organizing mechanisms and to abandon their ideological purism. They need to study policies and advocate for more institutional participation. They need to focus on electoral politics and they need to form alliances with those who have privilege, wealth and political access.
Those on the Left need to compete against conservatives by playing their game - Tea Party politics and the Federalist Society are effective because they are centralized on one goal - electoral capacity and filling courts with constitutional conservatives, respectively.
Democrats need to stop suggesting that a member of their party must embrace x, y and z and that they must streamline their goals. It’s easier to build coalitions by advocating for one common objective.
They need to utilize the structures which give them strength in negotiation (the Senate filibuster comes to mind).
Finally, they must recognize that ideological purity and cancel culture are only working for those who hold moral superiority over others less “woke.” Once you are on the other end of that, it doesn’t work and it doesn’t push society forward.
As Obama also said, “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room.” To get into this room, you need to be smart and sometimes uncompromising but have enough strength in negotiation to make both parties feel they are advancing their interests.
Activists will have to work with organizations and individuals who don’t embrace their entire bottom line but have the ability to make headway on particular issues. Sending them away in the search of some perfect ally can halt progress arguably more than incrementalism.
As Leo Tolstoy said, “If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.” Ideological purity and perfectionism, then, is an elusive and possibly unreachable concept and standard.
To build the necessary Senate majority and defeat President Trump to advance their interests, Democrats ought to find a way to win the World Series with a reasonable mix of hardball and occasionally letting their opponents walk a base.