We've been so focused on preserving not the system of democracy, but the status quo. We need to fight for the rule of the people, by the people, for the people.
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Initially, the saga of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s quixotic quest to be Speaker was a lark. Then it quickly became a farce. And finally, after 15 rounds of voting, it was a tragedy. Sure, McCarthy’s inability to wrestle down his unwieldy and intemperate caucus was an historic failure of leadership and government, but it was also a failure of us, as a polity. Whether in amusement or fury or horror, we looked on at the mess McCarthy and the House GOP made of forming a government because we no longer ask for anything better.
For those of us who have been longtime observers of politics, the spectacle was almost a relief. At last, the brokenness of our system was on display. While all eyes have been glued to the widely broadcast disaster of the Republican representatives tussling over nothing at all, it seemed that nobody noticed the last-minute omnibus spending bill that passed in the waning hours of the previous Congress—just in time to avert a catastrophic shutdown for the third time in a year. Without much blowback or fuss, the threat of government collapse has become so routine as to be relegated to background noise.
Even during the interminable nomination speeches in every desperate round of voting for the Speakership, Republicans lambasted the size and opacity of the $1.7 trillion package, while entirely ignoring that it was an emergency intervention made necessary by the fact that normal order has all but disintegrated. We now only ever attempt to repair problems in this country when they are about to detonate.
And while much of this dysfunction can be laid at the feet of an increasingly radical and intransigent GOP, our lowered expectations for anything better are the product of a complacent Democratic Party. True, part of it is the scramble of prevention, trying to put out fires started by the explosive extremism of Republicans, who, as demonstrated in the Speaker calamity, are happy to watch the world burn. But the other part of the equation is an unfocused and nebulous drive to preserve, not the system itself, but the status quo, seemingly for its own sake.
As offensive as all of the Republican threats and tantrums are, Democrats remain curiously tepid. Instead of adamant condemnations of Republican sabotage, we are offered myths of bipartisan cooperation. Rather than attack the party and the structures that enable it, we get rejections of Trump or his associates, as if they could succeed without an apparatus. And the reaction to the nihilism of reactionary conservatism is often to tell voters to cultivate satisfaction—with our suppressed representation, with the shrinking footprint of our prosperity, with a government so distorted and distant that it can neither care for its citizens nor shield us from harm.
In return, the regular people who are supposed to drive the engines of power have been left to choose between outrage and despair; the notion of possibility is almost an anathema to our modern politics.
For more than 40 years, we have internalized the message that our lives are at odds with our government, that we need less from our structures, our votes, our taxes, our petitions, that our complex, sprawling, and ever-expanding nation should be monitored by fewer people and narrower perspectives. We have stripped our government of tools while our society splinters and breaks, and it has left us bereft of options and opportunities. We no longer believe that we deserve more: more than tweaks and patches; more than the slowly crumbling infrastructure of the past; more than the empty spectacle of dysfunction. We have been focus-grouped and push-polled into a kind of oblivion, striving for a society saturated with lukewarm gratification. And in the process, it seems that we—and the people we elect—have forgotten what it means to have vision.
We were not always this way.
At the same time that our political apparatus throws its entire weight behind the preservation of the 20th century, it is worth reflecting that the prosperity and safety that mark our memory were hard fought and hard won. The 1900s began with widespread corruption, inconsistent infrastructure (at best), the darkest depravities and deepest disparities of industrial capitalism, and unprecedented—before or since—waves of immigration. What allowed us to transform into what we are today was a potent and volatile mix of advocacy and activism, opportunity and tragedy, and essentially, the expectation that government was meant to solve problems, not simply acknowledge them.
We had a Square Deal and a New Deal, Double Victory and a Civil Rights Movement, first-, second-, third-, fourth-, and post-wave feminism, expansive and impactful labor strikes and unbelievable worker protections, a Gilded Age and a Great Depression and the regulatory infrastructure and social insurance to prevent either from happening again. Even when the government failed to respond, we never failed to ask.
So if we are to survive the 21st century as a nation, we will need to do the work and reflect the intensity of our forebears. In 1909 and 1910, a strike of New York garment workers allied more than 20,000 working-class immigrant girls with the women of high society and successfully extracted a shorter workweek, higher wages, and union recognition for many of its members. And yet, when it was not enough, when the failure to change led to the horrific deaths of 146 of those very same workers, the collective rage of New York City from its penthouses to its slums would revolutionize workplace safety and labor law in the state and then the nation, bolster and expand the suffrage movement, and ultimately lead to the first woman Cabinet secretary and some of the most important pillars of the New Deal reforms, including the National Labor Relations Board.
All because they would not take no for an answer.
Around us now, there are millions grasping for tomorrow in Iran, in Ukraine, in Hong Kong, in Brazil. They do the work of seeking something better, despite the forces that would overrun democratic institutions, disrupt the work of representative government, and trash the place—like the Brazilian reenactment of the January 6th insurrection this past weekend. Even under the most repressive regimes and against the worst odds, people are organizing, challenging, aspiring.
Here in the United States, despite efforts to the contrary, we are lucky enough to retain our right to assemble, the words to speak freely, the government formed in our name and by our consent. To return that government to its purpose, to remind it and ourselves that the rule of the people, by the people, for the people cannot perish, we need to say that this farce and folly is simply not enough. It is time to stop being satisfied. It is time to demand more. It is time we receive the government we deserve.
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