Politics is a Good Thing

At my alma mater, the political science department has a slogan, coined by beloved straight-shooting pundit Larry Sabato: “Politics is a good thing.” When I got to college, I believed that, and I still do. I believe that our political system exists to honor and uphold the social contract, to support a rigorous discourse, to solve problems and to serve the public. Not only do I think there is value in following politics and engaging with issues, campaigns and candidates—I believe it is my civic obligation to do so.

However, after my four years at school and certainly since the 2016 election, my idealism has soured slightly. Eighteen-year-old me would have flinched at the word “moderate.” To be associated with centrism would have offended me. Compromise was a dirty word. In some ways, I feel embarrassed because I think I underwent the exact opposite metamorphosis that small-town kids are supposed to experience when they go off to a fancy school. I was liberal when I arrived on campus, and I’m liberal now—but I didn’t get more radical when I finally escaped the oppressive social norms and mores of rural America. If anything, I mellowed out. My liberalism is smarter now, more informed, more defensible. But it is also, to the chagrin of my leftist friends, more moderate.

We needn’t relitigate the 2016 Presidential election, nor the Democratic primary and the schism (or alleged schism) it caused within the party—media moguls and “expert” pundits will still be discussing those things ad nauseum, on every channel, when you get up from your computer after reading this piece. (And, I would imagine, every day for many years to come.)

But those events did reinforce my  cynicism about politics—a souvenir from college that I hadn’t anticipated and did not enjoy. The 2016 election was an alienating experience for me. College, and adult life in general, had taught me the value in walking the middle of the road. Life is full of situations that are less-than-ideal, but embracing some progress towards your goals is preferable to being paralyzed by and bitter about missing perfection. As the adage goes, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Let us not sacrifice the good of the many on the altar of idealism.

To me, it seemed much more productive to work within the system that already existed, than to burn it to the ground. Yes—our political, legal and social systems are built on foundations of racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Yes, the current political system often operates to serve and protect the interests of the privileged, rather than sheltering or uplifting minority populations. We can know this, internalize it—and still think the “system” is worth saving, which I do. I think it means a lot more to a single mother out of work; or a sick person without healthcare; or a person of color afraid of and angry at the criminal justice system; or just a regular middle-class family trying to give their children the best possible life to see slight progress towards a more perfect government than no progress at all. This is why Bernie Sanders campaign didn’t appeal to me, but my  reckoning goes far beyond one candidate.

Five years ago, I believed in aspirational politics. I believed in grand ideas that inspire even one’s starkest political foes and transform people’s lives. Now, I believe in smart policy. I believe in carefully researched, well-informed plans that are filled with nuance and, yes, compromise, because they’re more likely to pass. And when they pass, they will guide programs and public servants in a way that will improve someone’s day-to-day. I believe in answering tough questions with exact, specific answers—how will programs be funded? How will they be implemented? How long will they last? Where could they fail?

I don’t think all legislators have their constituents’ best interests at heart—although I used to. I don’t think all my fellow Americans care about politics, or care to be knowledgeable or engaged—although I had hoped that everyone had that hidden potential. I see an imperfect system filled with flawed people and incomplete ideas—but I still think it’s a system within which we can operate effectively, and I still think politics is a good thing.