If asked to recall past presidential farewell addresses, it is likely that Washington’s or Eisenhower’s is the first, if not the only, to come to mind. What do the two have in common? Why are they considered the most memorable? Both conveyed foreboding warnings. Washington warned of permanent foreign alliances and political parties. Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. President Obama’s farewell address featured its own warnings, specifically regarding threats to democracy. In the midst of discussions of economic inequality, racial division, foreign affairs, and democratic institutions, Obama called attention to the increasing polarization plaguing our country. Those from both ends of the political spectrum can agree with Obama in his belief that “without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point…we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.”
Channeling the words of the great literary figure, Atticus Finch, Obama challenged our nation to consider differing points of view, to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Not to diminish the importance of Obama’s other thoughts and advice, but I believe this is one that causes fear in Americans, a fear that must be faced and conquered. Too many of us shy away from opinions that challenge our own. “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions,” Obama said. If we continue these divisive habits, how will we ever truly progress as a country? This is not a plea to abandon principles, but rather to clear the fog obscuring middle ground.
Listening to the opinions of others provides an opportunity to learn and to evolve as a human. Our own views may be even be strengthened. However, it is the chance that our own views could be weakened that intimidates us. To admit that we may not be “right” about something can be unnerving, but we must be willing. It is only then that we can facilitate true discussion. The result might be a compromise or an “agree to disagree” conclusion, but sides are richer from going through the process of discussion and real listening.
Our president is correct when he said that our unity is weakened when our political dialogue becomes “so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not as just misguided but as malevolent.” Obama is not defending the hateful, degenerate individuals that unfortunately do exist. Rather, he is advocating for the cessation of the attitude “all Republicans are evil” or “all Democrats are evil.” These words seem silly in a context other than a fairytale, so I am glad that our president’s oratory skills can mask an embarrassing statement with eloquence.
At the end of his address, Obama spoke specifically of “this generation coming up.” He believes that we are “willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.” We are responsible for the optimism that Obama and many other Americans have for our country’s future. It would be a disservice to our country to disappoint them and to ignore the warnings given in the farewell address. Even if you don’t agree with or understand the reasoning supporting these warnings, have a discussion with someone who does. You might learn something.