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We Must Not Let Our Guard Down

Just because a demagogue no longer sits in the Oval Office does not mean that the systemic nature of American injustice is no longer present.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Inauguration Day ceremony, in addition to the new White House’s slew of Day One executive policy reversals, has instilled a new sense of hope in the nation. For the more privileged members of American society, politics is on track to go back to the way it once was four years ago—boring. Democracy may have prevailed today in the midst of a festering pandemic, widespread social unrest, and extensive political division. But we must not lower our guard and momentum simply because our leader can speak articulately.

Our standards for our government have been lowered over the course of the last presidential term, allowing the prevailing political order in the dust of Donald Trump’s exit to become a thing of halcyon days past. Now, as those days return, Americans are breathing a sigh of relief. Many of us may feel free from the clutches of outspoken demagoguery from the highest office of the land, but millions of Americans continue to suffer from forces that have defined the country’s shortcomings long before Trump’s victory in 2016: lack of access to health insurance, inadequate housing for low-income people, zero accountability and a culture of tolerance for police brutality, a gun violence epidemic that has only been temporarily tempered by pandemic circumstances, and the impending danger of climate change.

The political division seemingly cast into existence from the void by unregulated social media apparatuses and the rhetoric of a thin-skinned demagogue will continue despite President Biden’s rhetoric of unity, much less a sing-along led by Garth Brooks. It has been the rise of progressives in the modern era, the same forces that continue to push the Democratic Party to the left, that are just as responsible for this division. Of course this political “heat”, as described by Agora columnist David Leshchiner early last year, was not visible twenty years ago when the Democratic and Republican parties were signing and celebrating the same crime bills that left vulnerable communities in the mud, when Democrat Bill Clinton was taking the same sort of racist stand against violent crime on the 1992 campaign trail in his personal oversight of the Arkansas execution of Billy Ray Rector as Republican George W. Bush did with Willie Horton’s execution during the 1988 election.

There should be no reasonable American who expects a halt to factionalistic division after one single Inauguration Day. Times have changed permanently. Today's extreme division is not a battle cry herded by Donald Trump—it is the result of changing political ideologies. Trump may be gone, but the war between reactionaries and progressives isn't leaving anytime soon. I heard scores of people realizing throughout the last four years that Trump was simply a symptom and not a source of injustice. Have we forgotten that?

Today, it is easy to lose sight of what’s most important. We must not let our guard down. We are simply back where we started. We have much work to do.

Even President Barack Obama, with a Democratic Congress instilled by the younger, browner electorate in 2008, could not complete the most essential aspects of his package of promises. In 2012, as Democrats lost a considerable presence in the federal government, the fire of change swiftly came to an end, replaced by a desperate grind and power struggle. When the midterm elections—in which older, whiter votes reign supreme—hit two years from now and Biden once again is faced with strong Republican opposition, we will hardly be feeling the same hope that is prevalent today.

Given the derivative, unstable nature of the last four years under Trump, we might be relieved politics is on track to go back to “normal”. But in the foolishly hopeful spirit of this year’s Inauguration Day, we might have also forgotten what “normal” politics look like. It’s unproductive. It’s slow. It’s all speechwriter sweet talk and seldom the change economically vulnerable Americans need, especially at this crucial moment.

As President Biden said today, our children and our children’s children are watching. Well, Joe, I hope our children and our children’s children will see something worth celebrating before the 2022 midterms when gridlock once again hits the American political system.

Mark Lu is an undergraduate senior in the School of Public Affairs. He is the Editor-in-Chief at the Agora.

Image courtesy Joe Raedle, Creative Commons

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