Looking for Hope in All the (Wrong?) Places

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It’s easy to spot revolutions where none exist, which is why claims to see anything beyond mere realignments in historic electoral results must always be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In the last 10 years alone we’ve seen the election of the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama, on a campaign of hope that the pundits told us would usher in a new post-racial world; the takeover two years later of the House of Representatives by Republicans riding a wave of voter anger that, we were led to believe, would prevent any further fly-by-night legislation enacted without any bipartisan support; last year’s election of the first reality television star “non-politician,” President Donald Trump, that many feared represented the death of American politics as we know it; and last week’s stunning performance by Democrats in state races here in Pennsylvania, as well as in neighboring New Jersey and nearby Virginia, that the party says represents the beginning of the people’s taking back government from Trump and the Republicans.

I would welcome a reordering of political power in Washington, if that’s what the most recent results foretell. The president has in many ways made a mockery of this nation’s highest office and has been unchecked by the members of his party who control the legislative branch. This is so even as the GOP, despite controlling the White House and Congress, cannot seem to get anything of substance done, leaving Trump to use the same maneuver — issuing executive orders — that he and other Republicans decried when employed by his Democratic predecessor.

But to expect that a shift in power would suddenly make Congress embrace bipartisanship and effective governance would be to surrender reason in favor of hope. Each side has long sought to attach the original sin of obstructionism to its opponent, whether that’s the Kenneth Starr prosecutions of President Clinton or Senate Democrats’ first culling of the filibuster, years before the Republicans would further trim the ability of a minority to block legislation. There is little more than partisan longings to justify believing that current developments are pointing to a glorious political revolution on the horizon.

And yet, when looking at the victories in the Virginia gubernatorial and legislative races, as well as the results on the other side of the Delaware River and right here at home in Philadelphia, there is much beyond the political horse race to feel genuinely optimistic about America’s future. If the last couple of decades have taught us anything it’s that politics has been deeply divisive and personal for a long time. Yes, it’s getting worse, but that fact has more to do with our tolerance for divisiveness and boorishness than with the fault of any one particular politician, whether he be the president or a twice-deposed judge running for the Senate.

A guilty pleasure of mine is watching Prime Minister’s Questions on C-SPAN. The taped program is of a weekly one-hour session in the British House of Commons in which any Member of Parliament can address the prime minister.

The ensuing debates, which cover everything from the granting of subsidies to a business in a particular member’s constituency to the United Kingdom’s impending withdrawal from the European Union, can be alternately highbrow and funny, but even when insulting one another, legislators on the other side of the pond have an uncanny knack for doing it with respect.

In the United States we’ve gotten used to politicians decrying each other in the most vehement of terms, of framing debates over policy as take-no-prisoners acts of war, but in at least one race last week, voters seemed to embrace respect over inhuman intolerance.

In northern Virginia, Danica Roem, a transgender woman and LGBT activist, faced a hardline politician who had been in the House of Delegates since 1992. An author of a bill restricting transgender individuals’ use of bathrooms and changing facilities to those corresponding with their gender at birth, Bob Marshall — who liked to call himself his state’s “chief homophobe” — had also refused to debate Roem or to refer to her as a woman.

Roem trounced Marshall, 54 to 46 percent.

That’s just one race, but in many other contests last week, voters seemed to elevate erudition and respect over bombast and mudslinging. If this is a harbinger of things to come, maybe we will some day in the near future see a return to compromise and professional courtesy being hallmarks of government. Anglophile escapism might not be so necessary after all.