The President’s Farewell Underestimates Threats to American Democracy

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In his farewell speech at McCormick Place in Chicago earlier this week, President Obama delivered a rousing endorsement of the progress made in the last eight years.   And despite potential threats including economic inequality and continued racial tension, the President affirmed his faith in the future of American democracy.

But is Obama’s optimism misplaced?  Is he too complacent about the state of our democracy?  Indeed, one might reasonably ask: Is America still a democracy in the purest sense?  Despite the trappings of representative democracy, do we still have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”, as Abraham Lincoln so famously put it?

The answer is not encouraging.    There is far too much money in politics thanks in large part to the Supreme Courts’ Citizens United decision.  Constructive dialogue across party lines is almost non-existent, drowned out by a flood of campaign-fueled attack ads and negative advertising.  There are too many lobbyists writing laws and regulations out of the public eye.  The Federal government, and in particular Congress, is largely dysfunctional.  We have a corporate media much too focused on the daily back and forth of he said, she said politics rather than the important issues of the day.  Meanwhile, despite Obama’s protests to the contrary, the U.S. economy is sputtering, with overall growth averaging less than 2% compared to 3% to 4% in earlier decades.

President Obama did about as good as one can do given the massive recession he inherited and the corrosive political climate under which he was operating.

But let’s not get carried away with unbridled optimism, Mr. President.  We still have many, many difficult challenges to overcome, including rebuilding our economy so the benefits accrue to all Americans, not just a privileged elite.    That will go a long way towards reducing income inequality and systemic racism in America.

But perhaps the greatest challenge we face is reclaiming our government from the crony capitalists, of which Donald Trump is just the latest example, and beginning the long, hard process of rebuilding a truly representative democracy – of, by and for the people.