By Simon Sweeney
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Politician” by my senior class. For the display of this honor in the yearbook, I was photographed holding a piece of paper that said “Politics” on it, a silly joke, but one that in its way perfectly captured where my ideology had landed. At that point, Donald Trump had been the President of the United States for two years, and I was checked out. “Politics,” two years earlier a fundamental enough aspect of my personality that it had stuck in the minds of my peers enough to give me a superlative for it, was nothing, meant nothing. It was an abstract concept, one word on a page as a joke.
This wasn’t always the case–– there was good reason for my peers to have attached this to their perception of me. In the 2016 general election, despite the initial disappointment of my chosen candidate, Bernie Sanders, losing in the primary, I engaged with a fervor. Not yet disabused of the idea that any Democrat was a good Democrat, I committed myself to Hillary Clinton, the “lesser of two evils.” I went to a couple of her rallies. I got a shirt. I got a poster. I tore into my social standing at the private Catholic high school I attended, wearing down the goodwill of everyone around me with radical leftist viewpoints like “she would be a better President than Donald Trump.”
Another two years on, I watched as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and I couldn’t feel much anything. Granted, a sort of sense of relief couldn’t help but creep in at the successful removal of Donald Trump. I’d been anticipating that for a while. Something was missing, though. Why wasn’t I grinning like a maniac watching Biden recite the Oath of Office? Why was my most anticipated part of Inauguration Day only the reunion of the New Radicals?
It’s because Joe Biden isn’t enough. In fact, he’s so far from being enough of a positive force that he works around to being a negative one. He’s emblematic of a complacency that’s taken a firm hold of the Democratic Party and absolutely will not let go; it’s in the interests of nobody in the ruling class for progressive policies to be enacted. The goal is to posture in the name of liberalism, evict the white supremacists from office, then rest on the laurels of not being aggressively evil. Pay no mind to the racism and classism (and, inevitably, combinations thereof) that’s sitting on the surface–– the President is no longer an embarrassment, and that’s pretty neat.
I can’t settle for that anymore. In 2016, I was so happy to; Sanders was a lark, a guy I liked and respected but didn’t consider critically different from the propped up centrism of Hillary Clinton, of Nancy Pelosi, of the threat of Joe Biden. I had no inclination to bother with the difference between a Sanders presidency and a Clinton one; they’re both a score for the good guys. What changed? As I can figure it, it’s pretty simple: nothing meant anything to me. Just look back at how well I fit in at the aforementioned cloister of a school before I started spouting off Clintonian propaganda. I’m just a guy. Unassuming, from a financially stable home, white, straight, and cis-gendered. These conditions make it tough to clock at first, before some investigation, that politics isn’t a team sport (or rather, that it is, but the teams were not the ones I thought they were). That the Clintons, Obamas, and Bidens of the world are firmly committed only to the protection of their own class interests while ostensibly holding some sort of inoffensive, vaguely progressive values. That the Democratic Party is essentially without a meaningful ideological grounding and that its leaders, rich and comfortable themselves, only stand to benefit from lying down and letting Republicans roll a bulldozer over their faces.
It’s this realization of the truth of these alignments that’s necessary to have a grip on what politics are in America and have been for longer than anyone would like to think, longer than anyone who’s around right now can remember. This is something Bernie Sanders is very honest about. To tell the truth, buried in the hateful bile that he spit out the rest of the time, it’s something Donald Trump (mostly by accident, I’m inclined to think) managed to get at with some regularity.
So I find myself no longer possessed of the ability to cheer for Blue Team with abandon. When I can force myself to tune in to anything political, I struggle to find anything beyond contempt for the situation. It’s beginning to feel as if there is no ethical participation in politics; anything meaningful to be done is in attacking the system from without. Despite myself, I almost bemoan my loss of innocence here. I see relatives on both sides post little jokes in favor of their sides and I think back to when I could and I wish I could have it back, in some ways. It was easier if nothing else.
But wanting things to be easy is how we end up in this spot, patting ourselves on the back for pushing back the Trumpian menace and returning to normalcy. Considering what the normal is in America, normalcy is a problem. Normalcy means Black Americans will be killed at alarming rates by law enforcement with little to no recourse. Normalcy means people will starve while the government refuses to notch taxes up half a step on those few individuals who horde the vast majority of the available wealth in order to provide some relief. Normalcy means people will sit and die of a treatable condition rather than seek medical attention and rack up astounding amounts of debt. Normalcy can not be allowed to continue if we want to imagine ourselves a civilized nation.
So this is what’s changed. I’ve looked outside of myself and even anyone I’ve met. I’ve considered the people I may never meet and decided that they’re important to me too, something that should be easy but proves so hard for so many to consider. I’ve decided that cheering on “the good guys” I’ve been presented with isn’t enough, that even working within the system we’ve got probably isn’t. I can’t be sure of what that entails in terms of valuable action, but I am sure that it’s up to us to consider ourselves and what it’s worth getting excited for. Joe Biden’s election certainly doesn’t qualify, and from where I stand, horrifying as it is, I’m not sure what will.
Simon Sweeney was born in 2000 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Central Catholic High School in 2019 and is currently studying English Literature, Film, and Nonfiction Writing at the University of Pittsburgh.