Barack Obama demits office with a message couched in what is now disparaged as a dead language, to remind the world that the liberal culture which speaks it is alive and well. While a wave of small-minded, negative politics appears to be sweeping across continents, the outgoing US president underlines — eloquently and powerfully — that the people’s welfare can be secured only by liberal values, inclusive politics and respect for the traditions of democracy. Essentially, he has invoked what Israeli-American philosopher Avishai Margalit calls “the decent society”, whose institutions do not humiliate the citizens, and whose citizens do not humiliate each other.
The people of so many of the world’s great democracies are seeking refuge in the politics of humiliation and aggression. Insecure majorities are too easily convinced that they are losing the struggle for survival to industrious minorities. Obama warns that without a sense of equal economic opportunity, nations will be riven by the differences which divide them. At the same time, he insists that democracy cannot be founded on monocultures. That would produce a monologue, while democracy is built out of dialogue, out of differences. This is a strong plea on behalf of migrancy, which was a prominent electoral question in 2016, tilting the US and some European nations rightwards. Indeed, the global economy will remain fundamentally skewed so long as it promotes the globalisation of trade and capital but curbs the movement of labour. Obama offers an equally compelling argument against the now fashionable notion of post-truth realities, and the self-reinforcing echo chambers in which such travesties of the objective world are hatched and promoted.
Illiberal politics is a broad spectrum phenomenon. Its practitioners range from the extremity of terrorists claiming divine sanction to mainstream political leaders deploying electronic propaganda machines and nurturing a culture of fear to keep competitors in control. The sovereign remedy for this poison is not mere party politics, but fundamental democratic beliefs which form the bedrock of the democratic system — “the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press.” And, most importantly, it depends on respect for institutions and their practices. Towards the beginning of his speech in his home city of Chicago, the crowd had begun to chant: “Four more years.” The outgoing president crisply retorted: “I can’t do that.” And he noted that despite their differences, he was committed to a smooth transfer of office to Donald Trump, just as George Bush had handed over charge to him. Obama may not have been able to convince the electorate that his party’s candidate should have been his successor. But in his farewell speech, he has reminded the world that without liberal, inclusive values, only the few will succeed in the pursuit of happiness.