Saturday, January 20, 2018
Opinion

Look at how far America's come

A week isn't a long time to digest a presidential election, all that came before it and all that's likely to come after. But it's long enough to get a bit of perspective.

Max Weber wrote that "politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards." It is not a vocation that rewards impatience. Progress is slow. It's tough. It requires compromises and is marked by disappointments. It's incremental even when it needs to be transformational. At least that's how it usually is.

But step back and take an accounting of the past few years: The United States of America — a land where slaves were kept 150 years ago and bathrooms were segregated as recently as 50 years ago — elected and re-elected its first black president. It passed and ratified a universal health care system. It saw the first female House speaker, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and the first openly gay senator-elect. The nation stopped a great depression, rewrote the nation's financial regulations and nearly defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history. Nine states and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex marriage, and the president and the vice president proclaimed their support of it. Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana.

The United States killed the most dangerous terrorist in the world and managed two wars. It has seen inequality and debt skyrocket to some of the highest levels in American history. It passed an economic stimulus and investment bill that will transform everything from medical records to education and began a drone campaign that probably will be considered an epochal shift in the way the United States conducts war.

Americans of good faith disagree about the worth of these initiatives and the nature of these milestones. But we can say with certainty that the pace of change has been breathlessly fast. We have toppled so many barriers, passed so many reforms, completed so many long quests, begun so many experiments, that even those of us who have been paying attention have become inured to how much has happened.

There is a theory in evolutionary biology called "punctuated equilibrium." It holds that most species don't change much for long periods of time, but then they change dramatically, in rapid bursts, over geologically short periods of time. Political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones have argued that "punctuated equilibrium" describes the path of political systems, too.

Historians, looking back from more quiescent periods, will marvel at all that we have lived through. Activists, frustrated by their inability to shake their countrymen out of their tranquility, will wish they had been born in a moment when things were actually getting done, a moment like this one.

© 2012 Washington Post

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