The conventions have ended, general election season is officially in full swing, and Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have begun the charge toward November 6. As the campaign progresses toward that most important of dates, I have found myself thinking back to 2008. That campaign is what really sparked my interest in American politics. At sixteen I was dazzled by town hall meetings, debates, and the constant analysis on cable news. I was engaged and amazed by the whole new world of politics.
But as I watch the 2012 presidential campaign unfold, I am filled with very different feelings, most notably a deep cynicism. I remain as engaged as I was four years ago, if not more so; I am often glued to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the Sunday morning shows. I generally avoid the cable networks’ primetime coverage since it is either generally uninteresting or sickeningly slanted and aggressive. I still find the arguments made by the candidates, their surrogates, and the myriad of analysts intriguing. But overshadowing this is a massive, dark cloud of skepticism. Where did it come from?
I doubt that there is a single answer, but it’s possible that the political atmosphere of the last four years has exacerbated cynicism that I would have felt anyway. In 2008, I was idealistic about the course of the country and the practice of government. As a high school junior, I still believed that the federal government worked the way I had been taught in school: The American people democratically elect officials whose primary action is to govern on their constituents’ behalf and with the country’s best interest in mind. Once the campaign ended, the fact that the United States, with its well-documented history of racial discrimination and division, had finally elected a president who wasn’t a middle-aged or elderly white male gave me hope (with no offense meant to middle-aged or elderly white males). Some of that excitement remains, but I doubt that I am the only one who has had much of their hope chipped away since the last presidential election.
Since the last election, I and many other young Americans have learned the hard way that politicians, even the supposedly transformational figures who come along at time when the country seems to need them most, do not always keep each and every campaign promise. Guantanamo Bay is still open, the national unemployment rate is still above 8 percent, and a balanced budget still seems far beyond the horizon. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is more concerned with stymying any efforts made by the opposing party and the President than he is with coming to the kind of compromise necessary for effective governance in a democratic system, faith in that system and those who lead it is lost.
Many Americans have grown up believing that our government is of, by, and for the people at all times. But the reality is starkly different. In practice, our system of government is far from ideal. The interests of “the American people” are too often disregarded in favor of political gamesmanship. The altered tone and events of the last four years have only made this clearer. President Obama ran a campaign based on hope for the future and change in Washington, cultivating and riding a wave of optimism into the White House. But that wave crashed into the rocks of a divided government. Difficult congressional battles over stimulus, healthcare, and the debt ceiling have made the discrepancy between expectation and reality all too real.
I still have faith in America and its democracy. I believe that there are a number of politicians who genuinely care about the well-being of their state or district and the country as a whole. I still intend to do my civic duty by voting in November and casting my ballot in favor of the candidate who seems like the wiser choice. But I do so with a tempered sense of hope and a desire for change that far too often feels ultimately hopeless.
Morgan Wilson ’14, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Currier House.