Bending the arc

As the waves made by Barack Obama’s intervention in the Brexit debate continue to close over the heads of the Out brigade, the American president’s words last weekend bear some closer scrutiny for progressives this side of the Atlantic.

As somebody who ‘started as a community organiser’, Barack Obama is no stranger to being on the other side of politics campaigning for progressive change. During his ‘town hall’ event taking questions from young leaders, he gave some hard truths about how progress is actually achieved.

‘Change takes time’, the president said. And it takes compromise – something which requires a recognition that, even though people disagree with us, or have a different perspective from us, they may not necessarily be bad people because they do so, and may even profess to share our principles.

Obama made clear the difference he sees, ‘between compromising on principles and compromising in getting things done in the here and now’.

While emphasising that compromising does not equate to surrendering what you believe in, the president set out his own uncompromising, powerful principle: ‘that every person – regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity – has a dignity and worth and has to be treated equally’. In order to realise this, every child has to have true opportunity. But even with this powerful principle driving his politics, it is only through compromise that the president can make progress. He said,

If I’m sitting with Congress and I have the opportunity to get half a million more kids into an early childhood education programme, even though I know that that will leave two million who need it out of the programme, but the alternative is none, I’ll take half a million. I can look at myself in the mirror and feel good about the five hundred thousand that I’m helping, knowing that the next round of budget negotiations that we have I’m going to go for another half a million, and I’m going to go for another half a million after that.

However, many social movements and campaign groups struggle to reconcile compromise with their principles, talking only to people who agree with them and thus reinforcing their own views against anything else. Many increasingly see Labour as resembling a campaign group, talking to itself rather than reaching outside of its base, and failing to build an alternative progressive path for the country as a whole.

As the president warned,

People from different political parties – different political orientations – can spend the bulk of their day only talking to and listening to and hearing the perspectives of people who already agree with them.

Campaign groups have an important purpose in highlighting injustice and problems in society, but it is only through pragmatic action can change then be secured. Getting a place at the table is only the first step.

Obama continued,

Too often what I see is wonderful activism that highlights a problem, but then people feel so passionately and are so invested in the purity of their position that they never take that next step and say okay well now I’ve got to sit down and try to actually get something done.

These are the views of the man in the most powerful political office in the world – still finding himself having to compromise on a day-to-day basis. No doubt in order to get there, he also had to compromise.

For many, Obama has long embodied what those on the progressive left of British politics have been crying out for – an even-handed, pragmatic leader, guided by his fundamental principles, but not averse to embracing and reconciling differing views for the advancement of positive change for all. A cup of his customary charm goes a long way too, of course.

During his conversation with young leaders the president recalled the saying that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. Perhaps the first lesson Labour could take from Obama is to recognise that progress can only be made if we talk not just to those we are comfortable with, but also those who traditionally disagree with us. Only then will it be able to bring about the alternative that the country deserves and which continues to bend that arc.

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Ryan Jackson is a member of Progress. He tweets @RyanBJackson

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