Even before the election results were in, it was clear that most Americans would be disappointed. In a head-to-head matchup between the two most hated presidential candidates in recent memory, not many Americans had any reason to look forward to the next four years. In the long run, however, dissatisfaction can be a good thing.
When the public is happy, our appetite for progress dwindles. We’re far more willing to overlook social injustice and flaws in our system so long as we like our leaders and feel good about the state of our country. Historically, however, the greatest changes in America have come through widespread discontent in society.
For starters, the very existence of the United States is the result of dissatisfaction with bad leaders. Ever since the Revolutionary War, rebellion has been hardwired into the American consciousness. Admittedly, that’s not always a good thing. It’s also true that placing our faith in our leaders produces a more stable society. However, the fact remains that frustration with our leaders places the burden of change on the American people, whereas satisfaction can allow us to grow complacent.
The 1970s are remembered as a troubling time for the United States, due in no small part to the Watergate scandal. Upon realizing that President Nixon had been wiretapping his political rivals and using burglars to do his dirty work, the American public seemed to lose all faith in the executive branch. When Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, conspiracy theories about a “corrupt bargain” between the two abounded.
While the Watergate scandal was a tragic moment for America, it forced the public to confront the reality of corruption at the highest levels of government. It was also a triumph of investigative journalism, thanks to the role of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the discovery of the scandal and subsequent cover-up. This undoubtedly led to the harsher media coverage of presidents and candidates we see today, and we’re better off for it. If media outlets were to discover incriminating information about a candidate and keep it to themselves, that would be a far more concerning scenario. If someone wants to become president, we should leave no stone unturned in their past.
On the topic of Richard Nixon, I think it’s important to remember that bad leaders can still accomplish good things. Nixon was one of the most corrupt people we’ve ever had in the White House, but he had a number of successful diplomatic endeavors. He made history as the first president to visit the Soviet Union and communist China, reestablishing diplomatic ties that helped end the Cold War. During his administration, America finally pulled troops out of Vietnam in 1975, after nearly twenty years of fruitless U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
Speaking of the Vietnam War, it’s worth pointing out that the previous president, Lyndon B. Johnson, escalated the conflict based on false pretenses. In 1964, the Johnson administration reported that North Vietnamese forces had attacked two American vessels in international waters, in what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. You can read all about the shady details here, but the basic story is that the Johnson administration misconstrued these events to the public and congress in order to justify expanding U.S. military presence in Vietnam.
One military historian has even suggested that Johnson did this primarily to dispel criticism of his supposedly weak foreign policy, thereby improving his odds in the upcoming election. Despite all of this, Johnson is still remembered today for signing the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 into law. He may have been behind the worst foreign policy decision in American history, but we can thank him today for outlawing workplace and housing discrimination and defending voting rights in America.If we really believe in democracy, then the state of our society is not the responsibility of our leaders. It’s our responsibility as the public to create the kind of world we want to live in. If we want change, we have to vote, sign petitions, protest, and make our voices heard. This is what makes democracy so much harder than other systems, but also more potentially rewarding.