Former President Barack Obama warned Thursday how the focus on culture wars is affecting politics and governance around the world in an increasingly diverse world.
In his keynote address on global politics at the Obama Foundation’s Democracy Forum, held in the wake of the midterm elections that debated so-called cultural issues nationwide, Obama said, “One of the greatest achievements of modern mankind has been the recognition” that different groups of people have to be represented in government, but added that this has also meant that “people who are used to being at the top of the pecking order … feel their status in society threatened when the existing order is undergoing rapid changes.”
“We have to figure out how to live together or we will destroy each other,” he said.
The former president also warned that there was “escalating polarization and disinformation so evident in the recent elections” in the United States, as well as in Brazil, the Philippines, Italy and Sweden.
“Let me be clear here – the threat to democracy does not always run along a conservative/liberal, left/right axis. This has nothing to do with traditional party lines or political preferences. What we are seeing, what is being challenged, are the very principles of democracy itself,” Obama said. “The idea that all citizens have the right to participate freely in choosing their government; the idea that votes are counted and the party that gets more votes wins; that the losers concede, that power is transferred peacefully, that the winners do not abuse the apparatus of government to punish the losers.”
Speaking of culture wars, Obama said: “Those of us who are interested in promoting democracy have tried to wish away these so-called culture war issues. We like to focus on rules and laws… and we tend to see politics and governance as an ongoing negotiation between competing, rational, self-interested actors. But that’s not how most of us experience the world.”
“We can act on the basis of very concrete, material interests … but we also value having a coherent story about who we are and our place in the world. We attach great importance to a sense of identity. sense of belonging and status. A feeling that our lives matter and have a higher purpose,” Obama said.
Conflicts around culture are only exacerbated by the media and the way people choose the types of media they consume, Obama argued.
“Online media encourages this because you’re more likely to click on sites and read news that reinforces 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 be yours.” Emphasizing differences from other groups is what draws 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 dizziness, their sense of loss and their resentment of change — to tell them that your tradition and values, your identity is attacked by outsiders.”
He added: “When you add it all up you have a recipe for backlash, polarization and the kind of poison, slash and burn, it all goes into politics that we see erupting almost everywhere. And it’s dangerous.”