In the days after the election, I spent a lot of time worrying about Donald Trump. I spent even more time worrying about our reaction to Donald Trump.
Long before the political world began to revolve around this orange ball of gas, there was a growing tendency to view politics as a hopeless game that only crooks and liars could win. Trump’s candidacy was fueled by that cynicism, and his victory seemed to vindicate it. A corrupt gameshow host who flaunted his dishonesty, ignorance, and nastiness was elevated to the highest office in the most powerful country on Earth. Perhaps the snarky Twitter refrain I always hated was true after all: “lol, nothing matters.”
Institutions that were losing trust before November emerged from 2016 in even worse shape: the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the media, the government, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and businesses from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. A foreign adversary had waged a propaganda campaign that successfully influenced a U.S. election. There was evidence of voter suppression in multiple states. The most nakedly racist, sexist, and nativist appeals by a presidential candidate in decades–and maybe ever–seemed to actually work, or at the very least, didn’t fail. After a national trauma that shook the foundations of American democracy, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that the majority who voted against Trump would lose whatever faith we had left in our political system, as well as our ability to change it.
I understand the temptation. I share it more often than I like to admit because, like you, I read the news. And the news is a terrible place–a flood of tweets and headlines that submerge us in a perpetual state of chaos without ever showing us the way out. Even the small percentage of news that’s not about Trump is all crime and terror, disaster and disease, conflict and scandal. Politicians of both parties are usually portrayed as charlatans, idiots, or–at best–disappointments. The idea that anyone in the public arena is motivated by anything other than greed, ego, power, or self-preservation would seem laughable to even the most casual consumer of news.
This cynicism can be contagious. The more you hear that all politics is bullshit, the more likely you are to believe it. And if you believe it, you may decide that the system is rigged beyond repair–that no matter how much time or energy you put into electing a candidate or fighting for a particular policy, you’ll be let down. The promising outsider starts to look like an establishment sell-out. The final bill has been watered down by too much compromise or too many lobbyists. Political opponents don’t just seem to be wrong, they seem to be acting in bad faith, so maybe you decide it’s not worth trying to persuade that Trump voter or Bernie voter or Hillary voter. Maybe it’s easier to yell at them or mock them or dismiss them altogether.
I get it. I get all the reasons to walk away from this mess. I get all the reasons to limit your participation to television shouting and Twitter burns (I’ve been known to partake). If you don’t allow yourself to believe in a worthy cause, you can’t be disappointed. If you don’t place your trust in someone else, you can’t be let down. Cynicism protects us from the pain of failure and the humiliation of being wrong.
And yet cynicism is ultimately incompatible with democracy. “The basis of democracy,” the writer Marilynne Robinson said, “is the willingness to assume well about other people.” Sure, our fellow citizens will upset and enrage us. No one’s motives are always pure. Some, like our President’s, are almost never pure. But America was founded on the belief that human beings, despite all of our deep flaws and differences, could still find a way to govern ourselves; that there is a workable alternative to being ruled or being at war with one another.
Our experiment failed once in 241 years, during a civil war over slavery, America’s original sin of racial subjugation. And though the legacy of that failure remains a primary source of our current political conflict, the unfinished movement for equal justice and opportunity has delivered undeniable progress–civil rights and voting rights, but also women’s rights and workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights and LGBT rights. The Americans who won these rights faced sustained hostility and condemnation from their own government. Their patriotism was questioned, their good names slandered, and their lives threatened. They were spat on, beaten, jailed, and watched some of their friends die.
Through it all they must have grappled with doubt and uncertainty and moments of despair. But they didn’t lose faith in their own power to make things better. They didn’t stop believing that their words and actions could change the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. They celebrated even the most incremental victory–not as a satisfactory outcome, but as a sign of hope that democratic progress, however maddeningly slow and uneven, is always possible. And in that hope, they found the resolve to press on.
We live in a tech-fueled age of short attention spans and instant gratification that has often left us with a transactional view of our responsibilities as citizens: “I give you my vote, you fix all my problems.” Or, even worse: “I complain about politics, and someone else fixes it.” Each new crisis becomes another weekly episode that demands a swift resolution with limited commercial breaks. When that resolution doesn’t come, we look for someone to fault, throw up our hands, and tune into the next crisis with even greater skepticism and disgust.
The Trumps of the world thrive on this. They succeed when more people are yelling at their TVs instead of standing in line to vote. They do better when they can offer us a scapegoat to blame for all of our problems–especially when those scapegoats don’t look like us, or talk like us, or come from where we do. They benefit when politics is reduced to a game of savvy winners and bumbling losers, judged minute-to-minute by polls and pundits.
Our challenge is not to play that game better, or find our own scapegoats, or make people even angrier. That’s easy. The harder part is getting people to see politics not as a small, petty, daily game, but as that big, hopeful, unfinished movement to inch America ever-closer to its founding promise. The harder part is inspiring people to believe again.
You can tell a story about the last decade that is an American tragedy. It’s a story about how Barack Obama didn’t accomplish everything he set out to do, how the Democratic Party suffered historic losses from Congress to state legislatures, and how nihilists and white nationalists finally won the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. It’s a story about a bitter primary in 2016 that has left the Democrats divided without a clear leader or direction. And it’s a story about how the unthinkable election of Donald Trump has propelled us into a national crisis, forcing us to reckon with how we got here and what we can do to limit the damage to our country and the world.
We shouldn’t ignore or minimize the truth in this account, or the fear and pain this presidency has already inflicted on many–particularly those who aren’t wealthy white men. But if we look beneath the headlines, we can see the beginnings of another story being written.
It’s the story of how women responded to the inauguration of a misogynist by organizing the largest demonstration in our nation’s history, and how Americans of every religion responded to a Muslim travel ban by flooding our airports in protest. It’s the story of how Americans of every race responded to a small gang of bigots in Charlottesville with huge, peaceful marches in dozens of cities, and how the passion of young immigrants forced a president to back away from his threat to expel them from the only country they’ve ever known.
Two fierce rivals for the Democratic nomination still agreed on the most progressive platform in the party’s history, and today the center of the health care debate has shifted so that it’s no longer about whether every American has the right to decent insurance, but about how we fulfill that right. Today, a Republican President and a Republican Congress have failed yet again to repeal Obamacare after months of tireless activism from people who were worried about losing their health insurance, and those who cared about the people who were worried about losing their health insurance. Citizens who didn’t even know their representative’s name before 2017 jammed phone lines, packed town halls, organized rallies, and sat patiently for hours, even days, in congressional offices, waiting for answers. They came from Clinton country and Trump country. They were sick children and their parents; they were the elderly and people with disabilities. And they won.
In the face of the biggest threat to American democracy in our lifetime, democracy has begun to fight back. Trump unilaterally pulls out of a global accord on climate change, and hundreds of American cities, states, colleges, and businesses announce that they’ll abide by the Paris agreement and help save the planet even if our government will not. Trump attacks the press, and the press responds with a golden age of investigative journalism that has already uncovered unprecedented scandal and corruption. Trump orders a few black athletes to stand, and dozens more take a knee. He picks a fight with hurricane victims, and millions of Americans respond with even greater generosity and solidarity. Everywhere you look, a new generation of leaders have decided to get involved or even run for public office–especially women and people of color; young Americans and those who’ve never paid attention to politics before.
The story we’ve begun to write is the story of an American awakening – the story of a national trauma that is causing us to slowly shake off our cynicism and recognize that democracy is showing up, not just on Election Day but on all the days in between. Will the story end well? Will we finally change? I have no idea. Predicting our future is a fool’s game. Trying to change it is not. Democracy is hard, slow, and a constant struggle. That was true before the Trump presidency, and it will remain true long after he’s gone. And even though there will always be setbacks and heartaches and loss, the progress we’ve made and the lives we’ve changed remind us that there is joy in the struggle, and hope in the difficult journey ahead.