Like many others, I was very struck by recent footage of Barack Obama criticizing cancel culture. Less than three years since he left the White House, he already feels like a figure from another age. No doubt this is partly due to the contrast between his demeanor and that of his successor, which could hardly be more marked. As the now-viral video comparing Trump’s speech on Sunday to Obama’s statement on the death of Bin Laden shows, Obama played the statesman role well. Donald Trump just seems to relish being at the heart of a 24-hour traveling circus of provocation and outrage.
But there is another reason why Obama has a slightly old-fashioned feel, so soon after leaving office. The right has changed, yes – but so has the left. Obama’s professorial style, discursive and self-consciously intellectual, hasn’t just been eclipsed by the rollicking ‘own the libs’ populism of the Trump administration, but by increasingly revolutionary attitudes among American liberals. When Obama was first elected in 2008 it was as a declared opponent of same-sex marriage. Hillary Clinton held that position until 2013. By contrast, the front-runners for the 2020 Democratic nomination have all committed themselves not only to support for same sex marriage, but also to full support for gender ideology, which was barely on the public radar at all even five years ago.
Beto O’Rourke’s declaration that he favored using the tax system to attack religious groups that oppose gay rights was not endorsed by the big names, but they didn’t make much effort to distance themselves from it. I suspect that such a move would be extremely popular among the well-educated and largely secular urban elites who form the Democratic party’s key voters. There has clearly been a radicalization of left-liberal opinion on social issues in the US over the last decade or so. An increasingly dismissive and antagonistic attitude towards opponents of socially radical views is now evident. Cancel culture is a product of this intolerance, and contributes to its intensification, as people get more and more caught up in the joyous self-righteousness of denunciation.
Obama dislikes this development, and rightly so. Civilized peaceful politics can only survive in the long term if we are willing to accept certain meta-political conventions and rules – for example, that people with whom we disagree are entitled to employment, to a private life, to a fair hearing, and to a voice in public life.
It’s a bit rich coming from Obama, however. He can’t escape his own responsibility for creating a culture where opponents become enemies and politics is treated as a ‘winner takes all’ game where the law is used to do down the other side to satisfy the tribal instincts of your base. It was Obama’s administration who refused any compromise in their attempt to force the Little Sisters of the Poor, a female religious order, to provide contraception to their employees through insurance plans, in violation of their Catholic consciences. It was under Obama that the Democrats became intensely hostile to even the most minimal restrictions on abortion. I don’t recall President Obama questioning the claims made by pro-same sex marriage judges that there were no rational or reasonable basis to oppose such marriages.
It’s always good to see prominent people taking a stance against the febrile and vicious cancel culture. But for people like Mr Obama who bear some responsibility for stoking that culture, perhaps a little self-reflection is also in order.