Obama: ‘We’re going to have to figure out how to live together, or we will destroy each other’


Former President Barack Obama on Thursday warned how the focus on culture wars in an increasingly diverse world impacts politics and governance across the globe.

In his keynote speech focused on global politics at The Obama Foundation Democracy Forum, which came in the wake of the midterm elections where so-called cultural issues were debated across the country, Obama said “one of humanity’s greatest achievements in the modern era has been the recognition” that diverse sets of people need to be represented in government, but added that it also has led “people who are accustomed to being at the top of the pecking order … to feel their status in society threatened when the existing order goes through rapid changes.”

“We’re going to have to figure out how to live together, or we will destroy each other,” he said.

The former president also warned that “escalating polarization and disinformation so evident in recent elections” occurred in the United States, as well as Brazil, the Philippines, Italy and Sweden.

“Let me be clear, here – the threat to democracy doesn’t always run along a conservative/liberal, left/right axis. This has nothing to do with traditional partisan lines or policy preferences. What we are seeing, what’s being challenged, are the foundational principles of democracy itself,” Obama said. “The notion that all citizens have a right to freely participate in selecting who governs them; the notion that votes will be counted and the party that gets more votes wins; that losers concede, power is transferred peacefully, that the winners don’t abuse the machinery of government to punish the losers.”

On culture wars, Obama said, “those of us interested in democracy promotion have tried to wish away these so-called culture war questions. We like to focus on rules and laws … and we tend to see politics and governance as a constant negotiation between competing, rational, self-interested actors. But that’s not how most of us experience the world.”

“We may operate on the basis of very concrete, material interests … but we also care deeply about having a coherent story about who we are and our place in the world. We care deeply about a sense of identity. A sense of belonging and a sense of status. A sense that our lives mean something and have a higher purpose,” Obama said.

Conflicts around culture are just exacerbated by media and the way people self-select the kind of media they consume, Obama argued.

“Online media encourages this, since you’re more likely to click on to sites and read messages that reinforce your preconceived notions,” he said, adding that “the people who are most active on social media tend to be the most controversial and tend to emphasize their differences with other groups, that’s what gets attention.”

And politicians, he said, know that “one of the easiest ways to win votes is to tap into people’s growing sense of anxiety and fear and vertigo, their sense of loss and resentment of change – to tell them that their tradition and their values, their very identities, are under attack by outsiders.”

He added: “Add it all up, and you’ve got a recipe for backlash, polarization, and the sorts of toxic, slash and burn, anything goes politics that we’ve seen erupt just about everywhere. And it’s dangerous.”

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