17 December 2016

The New Yorker: “Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency”

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”

Trump had triumphed in rural America by appealing to a ferment of anti-urban, anti-coastal feeling. And yet Obama dismissed the notion that the Republicans had captured the issue of inequality. “The Republicans don’t care about that issue,” he said. “There’s no pretense that anything that they’re putting forward, any congressional proposals that are going to come forward, will reduce inequality… What I do concern myself with, and the Democratic Party is going to have to concern itself with, is the fact that the confluence of globalization and technology is making the gap between rich and poor, the mismatch in power between capital and labor, greater all the time. And that’s true globally.”

David Remnick

Some valid observations here from President Obama about social media, its noxious role in the recent US election, and the complicated social challenges brought about by globalization and automation. Unfortunately, his long-term vision interferes with his ability to act decisively on the short term, as recently demonstrated (again) by the Russian hacking scandal: Obama knew about it for more than a year, and his lack of reaction may have ironically cost Hilary Clinton the presidency.

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