Tonight in Chicago, President Obama bid his final goodbye. The 44th president’s political career began in the city, soaring with his election to the Illinois State Senate, and he fittingly addressed a mournful audience in the place he still calls home.
Mentioning his successor by name only once, the outgoing president spent the bulk of his speech pointedly reminding the country that democracy is only assured if American citizens are willing to fight for it.
“Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. When voting rates are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should make it easier, not harder, to vote. When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.
And all of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings.
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
Building his call to action, Obama weaved with typical eloquence among broad concepts like hope and opportunity, fairness and empathy. He then paused to reflect on a few particularly relevant scourges of modern online life:
“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.
The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”
Beyond encouraging Americans to step outside the echo chamber, Obama spoke more candidly about race than at some other points during his presidency, dismissing the pervasive myth of America as a “post-racial” society.
“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades will be battling for scraps while the wealthy will withdraw further into their private enclaves,” Obama said.
“For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”
Rather than veering deep into cyberpolicy, Russian interference in the election or the explosive new Trump allegations, Obama offered one last tip of online advice:
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”