COMMENTARY: Obama offers civics lessons for Trump and Sanders supporters


Another commencement, another opportunity for President Barack Obama to urge the nation’s graduates to participate fully in the political process. He cannot say it often enough, especially during a presidential campaign when two candidates — one from the left and one from the right — brazenly use the frustrations of the electorate to peddle quick fixes that will only feed its cynicism.

“Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy,” Obama said May 7 at Howard University. “And your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.” Sunday, at Rutgers University, the president repeated that message. He, again, lamented the low turnout of young voters. But this time he hammered home how their lack of participation contributes to the lack of progress on issues they care about.

“Apathy has consequences. It determines who our Congress is. It determines what policies they prioritize,” the president said. He acknowledged the menace of big money and lobbyists on the nation’s politics. And then he said something that runs counter to the campaign message of Donald Trump and especially Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“But, contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left as well as the right, the system isn’t as rigged as you think, and it certainly is not as hopeless as you think. Politicians care about being elected, and they especially care about being reelected. And if you vote and you elect a majority that represents your views, you will get what you want. And if you opt out, or stop paying attention, you won’t. It’s that simple. It’s not that complicated.”

Nope, it isn’t that complicated. And, yet, despite the throng of young people at Sanders’ campaign rallies, young voters aren’t rising to the occasion. Citing statistics from the U.S. Elections Project, The Post’s Vanessa Williams and Scott Clement reported, “The share of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 who cast ballots fell from a record high of 48 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in the 2012 presidential election.”

Their story was about how the activism inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement hasn’t translated to increased voter turnout among African American young people. “Across two dozen states where exit polls were conducted in 2008 and this year, black voters older than 45 grew from 12 percent of the electorate on average in 2008 to 16 percent this year,” Williams and Clement wrote. “In those same states, black voters younger than 45 made up 11 percent of voters in 2008 vs. 10 percent this year.”

In their interviews with some BLM-inspired activists, the reporters said “a nuanced view of electoral politics” was revealed. And while no one “advocated a total boycott of elections . . . many were not enthusiastic about the value of voting.” I get it. So many promises were made and many weren’t fulfilled. And in the case of BLM, one black college student told The Post she “is concerned that many young African Americans are already disenchanted with politics because of their view that two terms of an Obama presidency have done little to dismantle institutional racism.”

I understand that sentiment. But anyone who thought the election of Barack Obama was going to wipe away more than 400 years of injustice — or anyone who thinks that all that’s needed is a political revolution to quickly secure, say, free tuition — simply doesn’t know (or doesn’t care to know) how our democracy works. As the president said at Rutgers, the change rightly demanded by the electorate requires consistent persistence in eking out progress in the face of forces bent on their failure.

“Now, one of the reasons that people don’t vote is because they don’t see the changes they were looking for right away. Well, guess what -- none of the great strides in our history happened right away. It took Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP decades to win Brown v. Board of Education; and then another decade after that to secure the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. (Applause.) And it took more time after that for it to start working. It took a proud daughter of New Jersey, Alice Paul, years of organizing marches and hunger strikes and protests, and drafting hundreds of pieces of legislation, and writing letters and giving speeches, and working with congressional leaders before she and other suffragettes finally helped win women the right to vote.

“Each stage along the way required compromise. Sometimes you took half a loaf. You forged allies. Sometimes you lost on an issue, and then you came back to fight another day. That’s how democracy works. So you’ve got to be committed to participating not just if you get immediate gratification, but you got to be a citizen full-time, all the time.”

This passage in Obama’s speech gets at my frustration with Sanders’ promises of things like free college tuition. I’m all for it. But when pressed on how he would get it done, Sanders has nothing to say other than pablum about how a political revolution will force Congress to do what the people say. Not said is how that uprising will be greeted on Capitol Hill where Republicans could still be in control of one or both houses of Congress after this November elections.

Meanwhile, what the president said also explains my eye roll whenever Trump says anything. From his reprehensible Muslim ban to the morally repugnant call to deport every undocumented immigrant in the United States, the presumptive Republican nominee is making promises he won’t be able to keep. And that would be a good thing. But imagine the sense of betrayal Trump’s aggrieved supporters will harbor if he fails to follow through.

Knowing how the system works and how to work it effectively is not acquiescing to self-imposed limitations. Dreaming big must also account for the missteps and miscalculations along the way. Reaching for the stars must accept the incremental victories that get us there. Sanders’s policy dreaming never accounts for the political nightmare that might await him and his supporters if he were entrusted with the Oval Office.

Obama must not let up on this part of his message. When voters go to the ballot box in November, they must not be ignorant of the reality they and his successor will face. To do otherwise is to continue feeding the frustration and cynicism everyone says they are rebelling against.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Washington Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.

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