When the first decade of the third millennium (the “decade from hell”; h/t N.P.) closes next week, few will miss it. The “aughts” opened with a controversial election that raised serious questions of democratic integrity, many of which linger to this day, and continued into the first serious attack on American soil… ever. If this attack constituted a test of our moral character, we failed it, horribly, rushing to abandon our values and those unique qualities that make us, as Americans, justifiably proud of what we’ve built here. Realization and redemption came, but rather late, and true recovery finds itself complicated by another crisis of responsibility, this time financial.
Have we learned something in the process? Maybe. But how many times must we be tricked into thinking “conservatives” are actually capable of balancing a budget? And how many times do we have to learn not to go overboard in wartime, before the lesson finally sticks? So far, the answer to both is “at least four.”
Amidst this chaos, it’s somewhat difficult to find a story that is, at a national level, worth celebrating. Here’s one: the experience of the last ten years flatly rebuts the theory, popular in 1999, that politics doesn’t matter. The 2000 election was viewed by most of America as inconsequential, and the candidates were roundly satirized for it. This was the natural consequence of a more secure time. Life was good, and unlikely to deviate from that course; if the pace of growth was slackening, this was inevitable, but not concerning. In the space of a few months, President Bush showed us just how divisive and nasty politics could be, just how little campaign messaging matters, and just how carelessly the country could be ripped apart. President Obama passionately inverted the message, winning a somewhat cathartic campaign premised on the idea that politicians can build, and not just destroy. Whether he’s delivered on the promise is another question: he’s made us believe in something. And his opponents have done the same, for better or worse.
The result is a more active electorate. Turnout in presidential elections has steadily increased since 1996, as voters realize that voting does, in fact, make a difference. Some of the attendant consequences are negative, reflecting poor voter education, and a toxic environment of disinformation. And there’s real concern for a backslide in next year’s midterm elections. But believing in something is better than believing in nothing. An interested electorate is the first step to an informed electorate.