11 November 2012

A remarkable, historic period of change

Ezra Klein
Five days isn't a long time to digest a presidential election, all that came before it, and all that's likely to come after. But it's long enough to get a bit of perspective.
Max Weber wrote that "politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards." It is not a vocation that rewards impatience. Progress is slow. It's tough. It requires compromises and is marked by disappointments. It's incremental even when it needs to be transformational. At least, that's how it usually is.

Step back and take an accounting of these last few years: The United States of America, a land where slaves were kept 150 years ago and bathrooms were segregated as recently as 50 years ago,elected and reelected our first black president. We passed and ratified a universal health-care system. We saw the first female Speaker of the House, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, and the first openly gay member of the Senate. We stopped a Great Depression, rewrote the nation's financial regulations, and nearly defaulted on our debt for the first time in our history. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia legalized gay marriage, and the president and the vice president both proclaimed their support. Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana.We killed the most dangerous terrorist in the world and managed two wars. We've seen inequality and debt skyrocket to some of the highest levels in American history. We passed a stimulus and investment bill that will transform everything from medical records to education and began a drone campaign that will likely be seen as an epochal shift in the way the United States conducts war.
Americans of good faith disagree over the worth of these initiatives and the nature of these milestones. None of us know the verdict that history will render. But we can say with certainty that the pace of change has been breathlessly fast. We have toppled so many barriers, passed so many reforms, completed so many long quests, begun so many experiments, that even those of us who've been paying attention have become inured to how much has happened.
It is common, for instance, to hear pundits wonder why the president didn't invest in long-term infrastructure after the financial crisis or move Medicare beyond fee-for-service as a way to cut the debt, either forgetting or never knowing the stimulus was one of the largest one-time infrastructure investments in the nation's history and that the Affordable Care Act is the most ambitious effort to move American health care towards a pay-for-quality paradigm ever mounted.
The even more frequent complaint is that the pace and scale of change has been, if anything, insufficient. The stimulus should've been bigger, the health reforms more ambitious, the largest banks broken apart, the wars either finished more swiftly or expanded more decisively. All that may be true, but it doesn't obviate the remarkable pace and scale of the changes that have come.
More troublesome is that even once change has happened, it takes time for it to be felt. The health-care law, for instance, won't go into effect until 2014. And in some cases, the extraordinary efforts were meant to keep something from happening. Our success in stopping another Great Depression will be studied by economists for years to come, but in real people's lives, that work meant less change, not more, though we should be thankful for that.
Political journalism, meanwhile, is built to obscure change once it's happened. The demands of reporting the news require us to focus on what's being done, rather than what's been done (notice how, mere days after a presidential election, we have already moved on to talking about the Petraeus affair). The focus on conflict elevates voices that argue that we haven't done nearly enough, or that what we've done wasn't worth doing. The community of the media encourages a kind of jaded cynicism -- you're always safer pretending to have seen it all before than to never have seen anything like it.
There is a theory in evolutionary biology called "punctuated equilibrium." It holds that most species don't change much for long periods of time, but then they change dramatically, in rapid bursts, over geologically short periods of time.
Political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Joneshave argued that "punctuated equilibrium" describes the path of political systems, too. Typically, politics is held in stasis, with little progress being made in the slow boring of those hard boards. But when change does come, it's not a steady process of incremental advances but a breathless flurry in which the boards split all at once.
Whether we intended to or not, whether it was sufficient or not, whether we liked it or not, we have been living through a remarkable period of political change in these last few years. We have split so many hard boards that we're no longer surprised when they crack in half, and we mainly wonder why we haven't gotten through more of them, or why we didn't choose different ones. But viewed against most other eras in American life, the pace of policy change in these last few years has been incredibly fast. Historians, looking back from more quiescent periods, will marvel at all that we have lived through. Activists, frustrated at their inability to shake their countrymen out of their tranquility, will wish they'd been born in a moment when things were actually getting done, a moment like this one.