The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place last month.Barack Obama led the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’. In his much anticipated speech, the President claimed that the Civil Rights Movement had benefited all minorities; not just Black Americans. According to Obama, prejudice, whether it is based on gender, sexuality, race or religious affiliation has irreversibly declined as a consequence of the Movement.
John Stuart Mill, the English political philosopher, warned of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. At the head of this tyrannical majority in 1960’s America were figures such as the Southern Police Commissioner, Bull Connor. The paradoxical allegation that Barack Obama is representative of a tyrannical majority in modern day America is not entirely unfounded.
This observation is based on the most unprecedented irony of history in the modern age. His approval of same sex marriage, his guardianship of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal’ Act of 2010, and his plans to provide illegal immigrants with legal status, can even be interpreted in the same light as the Jim Crow laws once were. By marginalising the attention received by religious and nationalistic groups, he is supporting the very prohibitive political culture which would have prevented him from becoming the first Black President.
The experience of the ‘Westboro Baptist Church’ best exposes this contradiction; a contradiction which is inherent to all democracies and is central to the Obama administration.
In April 2007, Louis Theroux exposed the relentlessly homophobic and intolerant character of this religious cult in a BBC Two documentary. However, given Obama’s self-portrayal as a bulwark of Liberalism, their second-class treatment should not be dismissed. After picketing the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, the latter’s family sued the Church for defamation alongside other public offences. In 2010, after a long-running court case, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favour of the Church, citing ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment.
What if such a case had ruled against the US Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s? Would African Americans remain deprived of basic democratic and Civil Rights?
John Stuart Mill may have the answer. He maintained that the confrontation between opposing statements is crucial for any functional democracy: ‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’
Racial, gender, homosexual and marriage equality are all valued ‘truths’ of the modern age. Is it possible to imagine a world without them? These social and political advancements should constantly be re-affirmed. Such re-affirmation can only result from Mill’s recommended process of conflictual debate with marginalised and minority groups. It is important to remind oneself, despite recent European history telling us otherwise, that exposure to an intolerant opposition does not have to result in the advancement of their views.
Democracy is an imperfect concept; why should its application prove to be anything else? Indeed, democracy (and its figureheads such as President Obama) can prioritise liberal results over process; the paradox being that ‘illiberal’ processes can somehow produce ‘liberal’ outcomes.
Edward-Isaac Dovere of the US based ‘POLITICO’ blog recently stated: ‘Now many liberals feel sure: Barack Obama was not the one they’d been waiting for’. The President’s inconsistent attempt at statesmanship is also evident on the international stage. Obama’s recent willingness to apply neo-conservative and Realist theory to produce ‘Liberal’ ends in Syria reminds us to watch with caution.
Obama has turned history on its head. Let’s hope he does not stop its advancement.
My aim in this article has been to outline the flaws of US Democracy and the supposedly ‘Liberal’ outlook of President Obama. My intention has not been to endorse any ideological or partisan views of my own.