Column: Finding Hope in the 2016 Election
The 2016 Presidential Election has been a uniquely disheartening experience. Never have America’s parties nominated two more disliked candidates. For many, the election has been a display of the basest tendencies of democracy in America. On Election Day, many people will not like the result. Even supporters of the candidate who wins should be wary, as their candidate will have to heal a country that is bitterly divided. For many, the discouragement felt from this election will continue into the next administration. For young voters it is hard to imagine a less inspiring first election to vote in. Despite this, I count myself an exasperated optimist walking away from 2016.
There is hope because many of the politicians and pundits are wrong. Things are actually going quite well in America. We are witnessing historic lows in crime. The economy, on the brink of a new Great Depression some eight years ago, has recovered. The financial markets have been restored, the housing market is back, productivity is at an all-time high, gas prices are at record lows, the deficit decreased, the auto industry has had some of its best years after being on the verge of collapse, and unemployment is the lowest it has been since the ‘90s. Despite a global financial crisis that toppled many economies, America is still home to the most productive workers and the world’s strongest economy.
On the political front, there is also much to be celebrated over these past two years. Courts have overturned legislatures attempting to curtail voting rights. Americans from both parties have come to agree that the Medicaid expansion has been a success, helping lead to the lowest uninsured rate in our history, and saving thousands of lives while also reducing costs. America is now beginning to address racial challenges long ignored, such as police brutality, the presence of Confederate flags on government property, and mass incarceration.
Globally, despite the uncertainties of our world, there are many victories to take stock in: the Paris Climate Summit marks the first substantial attempt to combat climate change. Old rivalries have been left behind in history as relations have begun to thaw with Cuba and Iran has been diverted from its path to a nuclear weapon. ISIS, while still a danger, is losing the war, and is on the verge of losing their largest city, Mosul. America enjoys more respect abroad now than it did eight years ago, and still remains the leader of the free world.
The ultimate reason for hope in America, however, is the strength of our people. The strength of our democratic state is that nothing is irreversible. No political challenge unaddressed has to remain unaddressed. The only unequivocal restraints on political change are the limits of you and your fellow citizens’ ability to persuade the public.
The cynics will likely cry that this same public are often the same ones who voted in the problem in the first place. These cynics, often students and academics, lament how the best argument against democracy is a conversation with an average voter. It is true that voters often are stubborn and hold views that are, yes, deplorable. But our history teaches us that they are still persuadable and that, in our most challenging days, our moments of renewal are just around the corner. It took the darkness of the Depression for a generation of despondent Americans to resolve to pull their country out of ruin and then vanquish fascism, all in the same generation. It was in the wake of the fractured and often bloody politics of the 1850s that Americans elected Abraham Lincoln, heeded the better angels of their nature, and banished slavery. History tells us that, in this country, the cynics are short-sighted and that, in the end, while the demagogues and naysayers have their moments, justice and hope have the final say.
The truth is that both those who are despondent about this election and politicians who portend doom are selling the American people short. That is not to say that we as a people have made the right call every election. Instead, it is that, in the end, the American people usually remember what it is that makes our country great, believe that things can be better, and end up working to make that so. We are not as fragile as our politicians suppose. When a car bomb goes off or a glass window breaks, we may confuse bluster with strength for a while, or mistake fear for courage, but that doesn’t last forever. When contentious issues challenge our convictions, the rancor of partisan debate turns us against one another for a while, but we eventually work out a consensus. We did after battling over slavery and after the tumult of the Civil Rights era.
With the displays of American democracy at its worst in this election, I find my optimism in remembering that this ugly side of America is part of a greater picture. We are a vast nation. We are full of contradictions. We are stubborn, and sometimes terribly wrong. We often give in to shallowness and enjoy sensationalism and spectacle too much for our own good. Yet in spite of that, we always manage to beat back our baser natures and summon what is best in us in order to do what is needed. That’s the story of how women reached for the ballot. That’s the story of how love finally won last year. That’s the story of how we heard a man stand on the Lincoln Memorial and tell us about his dream. We are not deplorable. We are big hearted and big minded, and while we often fight the growing pains that come with progress, we do not avoid debate, nor do we fear the unknown. That is the story, after all, of how our nation was born.
On April 3rd, 1968, Dr. King gave a speech in Memphis. The Reverend cried “Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” He said those words in the midst of the Vietnam War, while demagogues like George Wallace were on the prowl, and while riots and discord tore at the fabric of America. He said them the night before he was struck by an assassin’s bullet. Dr. King said those words because he knew, better than anyone, the capacity that our imperfect and troubled people had for good. He knew no political failure was final. He knew that no law was unchangeable. He knew he could lose his life for his fight for justice, but that did not shake his faith in the promise of his nation, nor in the power of a mighty God. You can find hope in 2016. This Tuesday night, the election will come to an end, but if you look up, you will still be able to see the stars.