Life from 30,000 feet up: is this time unique?

By: Samantha Bayne

30,000 (or so) feet above DC.

Living and learning in Washington, D.C. has been a strange experience. The shutdown is nearing the end of its twentieth day with no resolution in sight. Federal workers are now protesting outside of the Capitol. Restaurants near the Federal Triangle stay empty at lunchtime. Rush hour on the Metro has felt as bad as ever, but one-third of its riders are federal employees. The reporters we visited at Politico called today’s politics “Crazytown.” This may be the “new normal,” but is it really out of the norm? The speakers, site visits, and readings all answered the aforementioned question very differently. Zooming out of the insider’s politics, however, reveals that the seemingly wild politics of today cannot yet be considered unexpected because chaos has always been a part of US politics.

Bill Kristol speaking at The Washington Center of 1/10/2019.

The past two years have been a constant onslaught of political news. Every day, Drake politics students have walked into class with a new piece of breaking news. It feels obvious that Trump’s era has to be unique. Bill Kristol, legendary conservative analyst, agrees: he argues that the simple existence of Trump may be surprising, because the dissatisfaction with party elites was not correlated with any true nationwide crisis. Trump by all accounts should have never been the Republican candidate as he had never been a public servant. One thing remained true in the 2016 election cycle, though: “People prefer bad solutions to no solutions.” Voters prefer change to address what divides us. Trump certainly provided an answer to an overall upheaval of society resulting from the advent of the digital age. And Kristol admits that our political situation is stable even with Trump’s presidency because tumult is a part of American democracy. From Watergate to sex scandals to economic recessions, our citizens are used to everyday occurrences labeled as emergencies and crises from recent decades. With some perspective, we’ll realize that Trump is not the end of an era or a one-off change.

David Cantanese from US News & World Report says that we need to wait to see if Trump is truly an anomaly or if he has permanently broken the rules. Because even if Trump is not new, the press cycle is certainly reacting differently. The press, according to the reporters we talked to at Politico, is moving at a relentless pace. Things are happening all the time that are all newsworthy. Journalists are tired of feeling like everything is crashing down. But here’s the thing: every piece of “breaking news” and warnings that the world is ending have not led to the world actually ending.

Politics in DC may feel overwhelming and all-consuming, but life continues beyond the machine. Seth Masket argues that, in regards to any major societal changes or party realignments, “Our efforts to understand this shift are only beginning.” Divides on race, class, and education are more striking, but they have always existed. Division and categorization are hallmarks of American democracy. Voting for change is a constant; in 2 or 6 years, we will be facing a candidate once again that will bring a new style to the Capitol.

Meeting Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY).

Brian Cusack, the Editor-in-Chief of The Hill, took the opposite view. He says that in twenty years, we will look back at this era in politics and think it was a “truly strange time.” But from 1977 to 2014, there were 17 separate funding gaps leading to partial or full government shutdowns. Kristol was correct: tumult is a part of American history. Civil Wars and caning of Congressmen on the Senate floor are still vivid memories. We are luckily no longer as violent in our differences, but the one thing that we can count on persisting is the simple existence of our differences. The division of the country into factions in 1800 may have been much to President Washington’s chagrin, but it is now a critical part of our functioning in American society. Representative Reed reminded us last night that most of the Representatives who are elected to Congress are truly good people who will eventually set their differences aside for the good of all.

Despite the common narrative that our politics are more divided than ever, there is still hope. We will get through this. We will be fine. We will somehow steer ourselves outside of the confusing streets of Crazytown. This crisis that we are experiencing today may very well feel like the end of the world. But chaos — and crises — are very much normal. From 30,000 feet up, not much is different.

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