Older people tell me they’re never experienced anything like it. Stories in The Onion are often easier to comprehend than real news, and Melissa McCartney’s satire is less scary than Sean Spicer’s reality. It’s been several months since the election, several weeks since the inauguration, and I still have trouble comprehending the sheer quantity of ridiculous news that comes my way. Sometimes I wish the internet could concoct some alternative facts for me, to reassure me that I still live in a country where science is real, where, you know, facts matter, and where our elected officials are actually trying to act in their citizens’ best interest.
The New York Times has a column entitled “This Week in Hate,” and my predominantly liberal university was featured for three(!) separate occurrences: flyers advertising a white supremacist group, pro-Trump graffiti on our piece of the Berlin Wall, and a swastika drawn on the base of the statue in the middle of our quad. I guess I should be grateful that the column had space to devote to anonymous and nonviolent incidents like these, but I can’t help but feel shocked, revolted, and unsettled by every red baseball cap I see on campus.
I’m from Oakland, California, and I’m not used to shit like this (not that anyone should be). I was really looking forward to encountering new ideas at college, to having constructive conversations, to challenging and changing my own opinions. Now, whenever we read excerpts from The End of History in my political science classes, we all just chuckle ironically. Today’s politics represent such a profound paradigm shift that nobody really knows what to say, even the smart-asses who pride themselves on having an answer for everything.
It seems our entire teleology of progress just doesn’t fit with the events we are witnessing. Western liberalism is built on the idea that humans are rational, that they are capable of understanding and advocating the greater good, not just their own interests. Yet there’s nothing inherently liberal about democracy. From its inception, representative democracy was designed as a perpetual struggle, designed to check oligarchy with mobocracy and vice versa.
In today’s age of unlimited corporate spending and deeply partisan voters that feed off of fake news, we’ve somehow managed to combine the worst of both worlds. We’ve enabled special interests while repressing real discussions, skewing influence away from the educated voters who were supposed to provide both the justification for and the reality of democracy.
But it’s not like the essence of American democracy changed on November 8. Russian influences aside, the intellectual framework of American democracy was just as broken before the election as it is now. When I proudly cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, I didn’t expect that much. I hoped she would appoint a Supreme Court justice who supports abortion rights. I wanted her to uphold Obama’s executive orders, and I thought her foreign policy experience could help de-escalate the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts throughout the globe. But beyond that? I didn’t think she’d be re-elected, and I didn’t expect any major domestic programs. I hoped that implementing universal prekindergarten and reducing student debt might prove bipartisan enough for legislation, but I’m sure Mitch McConnell thinks otherwise.
While I firmly believe the nation and the world would be far safer under President Hillary Clinton, I’m not sure how different our domestic politics would be. Especially as someone with a lot of privilege, I really don’t mean to disregard the struggles of Americans who will lose their rights, their jobs, and maybe even their lives as a result of Trump’s policies. Clearly there are many dangers to Trump’s policies, inexperience and decidedly un-presidential temperament. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, or the activist – or the centrist who just wants government to work, goddammit – but I’m tempted to find the silver lining, to say that Trump’s election might just be a blessing in disguise and a much-needed gut-check.
Voting is not enough; reading the newspaper is not enough. Much as it is (or should be!) a reflective and intellectual exercise, politics is also social action. It requires not only talking but listening, knocking on stranger’s door in favor of a candidate you’ve never met. It involves meeting the winning candidate, whether you voted for them or not, and telling them how to vote and why. Representative democracy has always been an ugly and contentious business, and that’s all the more reason we cannot abandon it now.
And no, I don’t think this is the end of democracy – merely the rebirth.