A few years ago, I watched a TED Talk where Valarie Kaur asked, “What if these times are not the darkness of the tomb, but they are the darkness of the womb?” It’s a worthwhile question for the new year.
2020 did not come out of the blue. It’s is the result of 40 years of repeating Ragen’s line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'” There has been a 40-year systematic erosion of the idea that a professional government could or even should be able to see us through a crisis.
It’s lead to disasters of policy such as the Flint water crisis, still not solved and still just the tip of the iceberg when you look at our potable water infrastructure nationwide. It lead to response disasters like our ability to help after Hurricanes Katrina and Reta, with rebuilding set to take decades longer than it should.
And, it’s lead to 2020, our disastrous response to the pandemic and our misguided response to the resulting economic crisis. Forty years of dismantling monolithic pension systems and privatizing government jobs for cheaper labor, and distrust in Unions lead to a lack of financial resilience in the middle class. The rise of the gig economy in a political system that abhors regulation or umbrella programs such as single-payer health saw us enter a pandemic with health insurance an expensive luxury.
2020 is the year that all that changed. Even with the dysfunction and missed opportunities to mitigate damage, people turn to the government to be part of the solution. There is no debate about whether the government should send out pandemic relief checks; the discussion is how much, and how much longer we should extend Unemployment Benefits. Medicaid enrolment has grown by just over 9% without any serious pushback.
Our elections this year were a marvel of engagement, even against a backdrop of incredibly cynical attempts at disenfranchisement. Massive voter turnout propelled new office-holders that are renewing the idea of responsive government. After the election, Los Angelis, long a byword for ‘tough policing,’ is now a laboratory for criminal justice reform. Responding to public demands for more police oversight, Minneapolis has shifted $8 million from direct police funding to violence prevention and mental health crisis response teams.
People are engaged in government, in the idea of what government should be, in a way they have not been in a long time. Once sacred concepts of what government should (or should not) fund are open to discussion.
2020 is the darkness of the womb. Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Great Experiment that is America is reawakening with new levels of civic engagement. We’ve seen 40 years of progress, even as our faith in the government has eroded. The ADA, the ACA, anti-hate crime legislation, anti-sexual discrimination legislation, the fall of DOMA and DADT, all of this can give birth to a more representative government. The elections of 2020 have seen this start to become a reality.
It’s been a rough year. Not everyone in my family made it through. My old neighborhood in Minneapolis burned, and some of my favorite businesses in Anchorage closed. I still end this year with a greater sense of optimism for my country than I’ve felt in a long time. I’m used to the people feeling that the government should be better. Now, I genuinely think that people think that the government CAN be better.
2021 will bring us flowers. We planted their bulbs in 2020.