Former President Barack Obama on Thursday praised Democratic organizers and campaigns for successfully defeating election-denying Republican candidates in a handful of midterm races in states that could play a major role in deciding the 2024 presidential contest.
“They got thumped. They got beat. And particularly in these secretary of state races, and in some cases, governor’s races, where in the next presidential election you could have somebody who could really do some damage there,” Obama said in an interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.” “There, I think we held the line.”
Despite the successes at the state-level, Noah pointed out that a number of GOP candidates who have made false claims about widespread voter fraud were elected to the US House. Before turning to Democratic wins, Obama said he doubted how many of those candidates actually believed “some of the nonsense” they peddled, suggesting most were either trying to troll Democrats or get in good with former President Donald Trump.
Republicans won back the House, though their majority is expected to be slender, while Democrats maintained control of the Senate – and could add to their advantage if Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Republican Herschel Walker next month in their Georgia run-off election.
“The reason we did better than expected can be attributed to not me or anything I did,” Obama said. “We recruited some excellent candidates. You look at (Govs.-elect) Wes Moore in Maryland, Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania (and) Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mark Kelly. They are committed, passionate, down to earth. They connect with people.”
The former president credited young voters, whom, as they did in 2018 and 2020, turned out strongly for Democrats – a marked difference, he noted, from the shellacking taken by the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections.
Obama also blamed coordinated disinformation efforts online and the organic growth of partisan echo chambers – of all ideological varieties – for playing a role in creating an environment in which “we can’t have a debate based on facts.”
“We start talking in slogans and nonsense, and there’s no reality check. We just make stuff up,” Obama said, before channeling Trump. “‘Ah, I didn’t lose an election. There’s something broken over there.’ And it’s impervious to facts.”
On ‘culture wars’
Obama, in a keynote speech focused on global politics at the Obama Foundation Democracy Forum, offered another post-election warning Thursday: “We’re going to have to figure out how to live together, or we will destroy each other.”
“One of humanity’s greatest achievements in the modern era has been the recognition” that diverse sets of people need to be represented in government, Obama said, but he added that it also has led “people who are accustomed to being at the top of the pecking order … to feel their status in society threatened when the existing order goes through rapid changes.”
The former president cautioned that “escalating polarization and disinformation so evident in recent elections” occurred in the United States, as well as Brazil, the Philippines, Italy and Sweden.
“Let me be clear, here – the threat to democracy doesn’t always run along a conservative/liberal, left/right axis. This has nothing to do with traditional partisan lines or policy preferences. What we are seeing, what’s being challenged, are the foundational principles of democracy itself,” Obama said. “The notion that all citizens have a right to freely participate in selecting who governs them; the notion that votes will be counted and the party that gets more votes wins; that losers concede, power is transferred peacefully, that the winners don’t abuse the machinery of government to punish the losers.”
Addressing culture wars, Obama said, “those of us interested in democracy promotion have tried to wish away these so-called culture war questions. We like to focus on rules and laws … and we tend to see politics and governance as a constant negotiation between competing, rational, self-interested actors. But that’s not how most of us experience the world.”
“We may operate on the basis of very concrete, material interests … but we also care deeply about having a coherent story about who we are and our place in the world. We care deeply about a sense of identity. A sense of belonging and a sense of status. A sense that our lives mean something and have a higher purpose,” Obama said.
Conflicts around culture are just exacerbated by media and the way people self-select the kind of media they consume, Obama argued.
“Online media encourages this, since you’re more likely to click on to sites and read messages that reinforce your preconceived notions,” he said, adding that “the people who are most active on social media tend to be the most controversial and tend to emphasize their differences with other groups, that’s what gets attention.”
And politicians, he said, know that “one of the easiest ways to win votes is to tap into people’s growing sense of anxiety and fear and vertigo, their sense of loss and resentment of change – to tell them that their tradition and their values, their very identities, are under attack by outsiders.”
He added: “Add it all up, and you’ve got a recipe for backlash, polarization, and the sorts of toxic, slash and burn, anything goes politics that we’ve seen erupt just about everywhere. And it’s dangerous.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.