The core arguments of Barack Obama’s final speech as president of the United States—that the liberal democratic system of government is imperiled, in America and abroad; that the rule of law will not sustain itself without perpetual vigilance; that the temptation of illiberalism is and will always be strong but must be resisted—are true and important. And they shouldn’t just get a hearing among despondent Democrats who see the incoming president as a tyrant-in-waiting—after all, Trump himself won in no small part because many voters saw managerial progressivism—and its cocktail of technocracy, redistribution and political correctness—as being equally or more corrosive to American freedom and self-governance than the alternative.
Unfortunately, like much post-election discussion about democracy and authoritarianism, the president’s remarks in the Windy City more or less collapsed America’s crisis of governance into a partisan squabble, with the orthodox center-left agenda as the guiding light for freedom and democracy, and the Republican agenda as its nemesis. The president made a few token “both sides” gestures about the need to listen to others who think differently and to break out of media bubbles, but there was no doubt that the chief target of his admonition was the GOP. Among the specific threats to democracy he cited were hostility to immigration (but not his actions changing immigration law without Congressional approval), denial of expert opinion on matters like climate change (but not the ways the undeniable left-wing tilt in academic and media circles has undermined the public’s trust in those critical institutions), voter identification requirements (but not the way that hyperactive courts and administrative agencies seem to some conservatives to have rendered verdicts of the voting public irrelevant in the first place). In other words, to borrow a formulation from Yascha Mounk, the president seemed alert to the threat posed by illiberal democracy, or a popularly elected government that restricts individual rights, but not undemocratic liberalism—or the accumulation of unaccountable elite power within developed Western states—that Trump and other populists have profited from.
Why does it matter that President Obama’s defense of open government was framed as an attack on the GOP and couched within a campaign-style celebration of the achievements of the Democratic Party? Because while normal political conflicts within our democratic system—conflicts over guns, healthcare, or abortion—can be won by partisan base mobilization, fights as fundamental as the existence of the liberal order must be decided by consensus. The result of labeling the center-left as “pro-democracy” and dissenters as “authoritarian” will be to strip those terms of their meaning, and even impel the right to embrace the illiberal label—much as relentless Republican characterization of Democratic policies as “socialism” may have helped drive the rise in the number of Americans who identify as such, and Hillary Clinton’s infamous “deplorable” remarks became a proud rallying cry for Trump supporters. As Alina Polyakova and Peter Kreko wrote earlier this month of anti-Europe parties on the other side of the Atlantic: “By trying to simply dismiss [populist] initiatives out of hand as ‘illiberal,’ mainstream politicians have given populists further ammunition. If trying to address the legitimate concerns of my people is illiberal, politicians like Hungary’s Viktor Orban are saying, then I am guilty as charged of illiberalism.”
How can democratic government be rejuvenated in an age of inequality, polarization, and declining institutional trust? The new global populists aren’t providing an enticing answer, but the only reason they are winning power is that establishment parties and the institutions they control have been failing to do so as well. The roots of the crisis are deep, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Elites concerned with protecting liberal democracy and staving off the deterioration of the American state into a more personalistic system—a very real risk—need to develop a language that speaks to a broad majority of people with a wide range of concerns across both parties. Once the very ideas of freedom and equality under the law become reduced to partisan crusades, the battle is very nearly over. And President Obama’s farewell address, by treating liberal democracy and Democratic policy priorities as interchangeable, and by failing to address the way his own ideological fellow-travelers have made Americans feel that they are disenfranchised by the political system, probably undermined the cause he was trying to promote.