As I think about the results of last week’s election, I’ve found myself in a sort of haze trying to piece together where we stand as a society. It’s not that I’m surprised that the political pendulum swung to the right last Tuesday. Anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the past few months could’ve seen that coming. But what’s troubling is that this post-election political atmosphere has left us with fewer answers — and more confusion — about our identity as a nation.
There’s an African American in the White House, but come January there won’t be a single person of color in the U.S. Senate. Women will constitute roughly the same proportion in Congress as they do now — slightly fewer than twenty percent. But with more Republican women than before, the already tenuous legislative support for reproductive rights will probably wane. And with the election of David Cicilline (D–R.I.) to the U.S. House of Representatives, there will be more openly gay congresspeople next January than ever before. Nevertheless, our next Congress will be even less likely than our current one to support the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Contradictions have certainly been part of American politics ever since our slaveholding forefathers tried to ingrain freedom and equality as part of our political discourse. But as we enter into another chapter of democracy, the contradictions before us are particularly confounding.
And it’s not just in terms of civil rights. The New York Times reported last week that while the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans controlled 9 percent of all income in 1976, that same 1 percent controls 24 percent of income today. Times columnist Nicholas Kristof went on to say that, “From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.” Yet, in spite of this backdrop, our current lame-duck Congress seems poised to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. And a more conservative Congress will probably continue to neglect this extraordinary income inequality, focusing instead on creating new tax breaks for the upper crust.
It doesn’t matter that the motives of these politicians are perfectly plain to see. The point is that as a nation, we’re constantly pulled right and left and the divisions between us are wide and confusing. It’s increasingly difficult to say who’s right and what actions our politicians ought to take. If there was any question before the election, President Barack Obama now officially has the hardest job in the country, as the head of a democracy that can’t figure out who or what it is.
As I ponder today’s 92nd anniversary of the end of World War One, I have to wonder how far we’ve come since that time. It was during that era — another period of confusion and gross contradiction — that President Woodrow Wilson enunciated his dream “to make the world safe for democracy.” And ever since, Wilson’s words have hung like a self-awarded medal on the breast of American foreign policy. But let’s not forget that when Wilson uttered those words, no women and only some black men could actually participate in the democracy that the president had hoped to bring to the world.
In the past century, we’ve fought wars — which continue today — for the stated purpose of defending freedom and popular rule. And for this column at least, I’ll give our government the benefit of the doubt that their campaign for democracy was well intentioned. Yet, it seems rather obvious by now that at least part of the reason why we’ve failed at promoting democracy abroad is that our own democratic ethos at home is so ambiguous. We act on preferences rather than principles. The result is a culture of contradiction.
In the face of such inconsistency, exemplified by this most recent election, it would be easy to grow disillusioned about politics or about our ability to bring about social change. Indeed, our politicians have largely failed us. And even if you’re happy about this past election, you’re probably not optimistic about political progress following anytime soon.
As students at the University, we’re presented with the inspiring and daunting reality that in a couple decades or sooner, we — or at least our contemporaries — will replace the current ineffectual generation of politicians. Rather than getting turned off from politics, we need to pay more attention than ever. It will be up to us to answer the complex questions that our parents’ generation have created or ignored. And as we form our opinions and consider different careers, more than ever, we have a responsibility to do just that.
Matthew Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.