by Sam Storey, ’13
After the 2008 election, I, like many young Americans captivated by Senator Barack Obama’s sudden and spectacular rise to the presidency, for the first time truly believed that America was about to see its best days. Americans turned out in huge numbers to support the progressive candidate who viewed the world’s problems with the same lens that we used and actually strove to fix them. President Obama gave us hope for a newer, better America; he was a remedy for the pessimism and nonchalance that eight years of George W. Bush induced.
We were a product of our upbringing. After approaching the new millennium with childish optimism, we anticipated the awe-inspiring advancements we imagined the next millenium would bring. However, we were disheartened to watch as the the Bush years became marred by wars, mass murders, economic calamities, natural disasters, and ever-more-frequent acts of bigotry, violence, and hatred. Our political leaders eschewed rational or ethical reasoning when forming national policy in favor of avarice and hatred, and saturated their rhetoric with xenophobia, extremism, and fear. Although we invented the iPhone, we also invented Guantanamo Bay, the Bush Doctrine, and Sarah Palin; although we attempted to spread Democracy and ‘liberate’ the Middle East, we continued to persecute Muslim and Arab Americans at home; and although we advocated for human rights abroad, we also continued to deny same-sex couples the right to wed, or women the right to make independent decisions about their bodies, or poor citizens the right to receive quality health care. As a student who was just cautiously beginning to develop an interest and voice in the political discourse around me, I anticipated the Obama presidency as a force to right the tremendous evil that the Bush presidency brought upon the country. Obama instilled hope for a better, more balanced government that initiated bold ideas to confront our country’s dire and immediate afflictions, that placed country before politics (or power, or money), and that ushered America into a new, more advanced and accepting generation.
Now, nearly four years later, what has changed? If anything, the legislature seems even less willing to compromise and the electorate seems even more divided than before. In February, the National Journal reported that in 2011, for the second year in a row and only the third time in 30 years, no Democratic legislator voted more conservatively than a Republican, and no Republican lawmaker voted to the left of a Democrat. Sure, progressives scored some accomplishments during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. This should not be overlooked. But the divisive, acrid atmosphere of the Bush era never faltered. When faced with monumental problems the likes of which this country has not seen in decades – an exploding debt, a faltering economy, a contemptibly high poverty rate for single mothers, children, immigrants, and people of color to name a few – Republicans and Democrats alike fervently cling to their myopic principles as they prove themselves to be more willing to malign the other party than form solutions. Those few individuals who do negotiate are only willing to compromise up to a limit, and that limit is constantly moving farther from the other party’s.
It’s difficult for Americans to witness this level of dysfunction among our leaders and not feel angry. We’re angry because we feel duped by our government. We’re angry because when the great Senator Olympia Snowe announced her retirement from the Senate, she cited her colleagues’ intractability as the impetus. We’re angry because as the richest, most powerful democracy the world has ever seen, the United States has an obligation to act to a certain ethical and moral standard, as the “shining city on a hill,” as President Reagan called it, and yet we are so thoroughly failing to live up that that role. We’re angry because the newest generation of world-changing thinkers, writers, innovators, and speakers, many of whom will graduate from Stanford, are choosing not to go into a life of public service because politics nowadays is too discouraging. We’re angry because it does not look like things will change soon enough.
I have noticed recently that Stanford students generally tend to abjure political discussions. This could be simply because we do not want to argue with friends. But I think that it is more likely that we do not like talking about politics because we we feel disillusioned by the past three years. Students may not necessarily be apathetic, but they are certainly shying away from the public arena, choosing instead to take their activism in routes that circumvent the government. We dodge political discussions not simply because there are those that disagree with us, but because the discussions are too frequently accompanied by divisive, stressful, needlessly rude rhetoric. I am saddened that this has been caused mainly by the nasty, acrimonious partisanship that has spread from Capitol Hill.
However, despite this regressive political atmosphere, I believe that we simply cannot allow ourselves to become permanently discouraged from trying to right the many wrongs in our country. We must recall Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal words and remember that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” If only at an incremental, aggravatingly slow pace, we can and must change the way our government operates by holding its employees accountable. I am encouraged by the great leaders we have on campus who have proved themselves unafraid to take the first step toward that goal. But there are not nearly enough.
We must begin to care about the 2012 elections. The problems are too profound, the need for leadership is too dire, and the time we have left is much, much too short.
Sam is studying Public Policy and Feminist Studies at Stanford. He enjoys growing beards, driving recklessly and listening to Celine Dion.