Perceptions of history often vary from the reality of politics. This is not to say that history is written by the victors (although, of course, it is). This is to say that history is often narrated like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
First we had monarchies, then we switched to democracies.
First we had slavery, then it was abolished.
First women didn’t have the vote, then they did.
(Never mind that North Carolina can no longer be considered democratic.
Never mind the evidence of structural racism still inscribed in space: America still segregated.
Never mind that Russia now wants to decriminalize domestic violence.)
When history is narrated in this way, it acquires a linear quality.
Each struggle a chapter in the story of progress.
One is meant to assume there is a happy ending.
Our generation was raised according to the expectation of progress.
The good news: our generation has a higher sense of equality than any that has come before.
The bad news: we expect change without knowing how to work for it.
We have lost the institutional memory of the fight, of politics.
Not politics as in Democrat vs. Republican. Not politics as in the inevitability of special interest groups, and not politics as in the trading of money for power. The word ‘politic’ has multiple roots. In reverse chronological order:
the Middle French politique,
the Latin politicus meaning ‘of citizens or the state,’
the Greek politikos, meaning ‘of citizens, pertaining to public life,’
the Greek polites, meaning ‘citizen,’
the Greek polis, meaning ‘city.’
Politics is the reality of citizenship, arising from the necessity of sharing space. The reality of politics is negotiation, communication, and yes, conflict. If we do not embrace this, we yield to a society in which differences are managed through systems of control.
Progress requires confrontation and progress is not linear. The idea of an arc bending perpetually towards justice is pure romance, one that encourages passivity. The arc only bends when we bend it. And when we let go, inevitably someone will pull it in the opposite direction, because it is the right of every citizen of a democracy to represent their own interests. Inevitably, there are always people whose interests require regression away from the common good. To make sure we all represent our interests equally is the greatest challenge.
And that is politics – defined by conflict.
Each person must negotiate their interests, otherwise compromise can only be achieved through exploitation.
Democracy requires maintenance.