We have become a nation so mired in the fight in front of us that we are struggling to envision a future for ourselves and generations to come.
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Having combed through archives and sifted through texts and devoured the histories of lives and deaths and inventions, what stands out most about American life in the early 21st century is how anomalous we are compared to our predecessors. Like them, we struggle with conflict and grapple for peace, we cure disease and succumb to it, we suffer and we create. But with all of the progress we sit upon and all of the knowledge we can access, we lack one thing our ancestors held firm: We do not dream of the future.
The discourse around our politics is entirely consumed by a shallow presentism, a kind of myopia of time that presumes nothing beyond the moment in which we are living. We should have heeded the warning when the late 20th century became awash with theories about “the end of history” and permanent peace under capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this narrow-minded absurdity has blossomed into a full-blown mindset that so much of the establishment lives inside that no one can even tell we are trapped. The most telling sign is how we argue over power but rarely ask what it is for or what will likely happen next. Sometimes it feels as if our political debates are merely about stopping the opposition from shaping the world and not at all interested in what we would shape the world into.
There are no futures in U.S. politics, just the armageddon of the other side.
Here we are in the midst of the hottest summer humanity has ever experienced, and there is no political or practical discussion of what’s next. For all our knowledge and power, bluster and ingenuity, the United States has nothing to say to other countries or amongst ourselves as to what the world must look like to ensure human survival. In our politics, there is no 2050, no generational shift, no World’s Fair or equivalent, no invention or creation or project to bridge us into the After. There are no dreams, no aspirations, no person, village, town, city, state, or nation of tomorrow because all anyone ever talks about is today.
This mentality encompasses far more than climate change and reaches beyond ideology or party. It does not matter if you are on the Left or the Right, the middle or nowhere at all: There is no collective imagination of the next housing market, judiciary, environmental policy, schools, economy, transportation, immigration process, supply chain, Congress, space exploration, or people. We are a nation in stasis, evaluating who we are and what we want only through the past we can observe or dismantle instead of the future we must strive toward. There is no difference in where we end up, only the path each side manifests to get there.
As conservatives and reactionaries, Republicans and moderates can only ever offer the past. They wipe it of its impurities, patch its brokenness, sand and grind down its magnificent, messy complexity, and provide a clean nostalgia in place of sincere answers. Rather than accept the ambiguity of the future, the weight of choice and responsibility in shaping it, the GOP instead lays out a gorgeous delusion in which the problems of the present age simply never manifest. There are no consequences to climate change, no multiracial democracy, white plurality, or vicious apartheid, no old infrastructure, no unsustainable extraction, no aging, no time. There is only a beautiful, simple loop, where the past is installed in the present and becomes the future by definition, and so we only ever evolve into what we once were. That past leads right back to the present, where again, reactionary conservatism triumphs, and the past becomes the future again. And so on and so forth, forever and ever.
These politics are an obvious and undeniable scam, an illusion of time that robs any polity caught in it of purpose, principles, and progress. It is the kind of thinking that even the most apathetic of citizens can recognize as wrongheaded and broken because a country whose future is the past isn’t going anywhere; it’s circling a drain.
So it would be a powerful and compelling message for the Democratic Party to point out the foolish, self-serving nihilism of Republican politics, to jar voters awake to the cliff of time that we are sleepwalking toward. But that would require the party and its leadership to accept time—and thus death—as an inevitability. It is not merely age that defines the decrepitude of Democratic thinking; it is the refusal to accept that all of us are agents of temporary eras and not permanent states. If Republicans promise to restore either postwar prosperity or antebellum artifice, then Democrats offer the safety of progress already made, the present simply endlessly extended into the future. There will be all of the successes of our ancestors, but no new accomplishments to propel us forward. They will roll back the regression, and we will again be as we ought: satisfied rather than striving.
The next iteration of ourselves requires a destination and a determination to get there. This is as true for societies as it is for individuals. We cannot simultaneously be better and the same; we cannot fix problems by maintaining the spaces and habits that created them. The Democratic Party is too proud of what we have to acknowledge that it can’t and won’t endure. The party and its leadership are either too invested or too arrogant—or both—to accept that for all the work and all the effort, the present they build is only the floor.
That is the brutal truth of time and society that no one has wanted to share with a U.S. polity that imagined we had touched the ceiling: The future is the open sky. It is infinite, unknowable, untouchable—and yet permanent. For us, there is no grasping it, only building the foundations for the next cohort to try to understand it more, to scrape against it, and, eventually, to go beyond it. But no generation can achieve what a past one has not asked of it. We are the ones who have to answer: What’s next?
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