A common tactic of politicians running for office is to make it seem like America is in dire need of drastic change. Donald Trump, for example, has positioned his entire campaign around the idea that America is “losing.” Yet by nearly every account, our country is stronger, more equitable and more prosperous today than ever before. American unemployment has steadily declined since 2009 and now hovers around 5 percent. American students are graduating high school at a higher rate than ever before, with a national graduation rate of 82 percent and a progressively shrinking achievement gap between white, black and Hispanic students. Since 2007, over 20 million more Americans have the comfort and security of health insurance.
We are, in many ways, in a very good place right now. Because of that, we should dare to view our politics through an idealistic lens.
Idealism means believing that our next president will achieve her agenda, with or without a Democratic Congress. Even if Republicans hold the House of Representatives (nearly guaranteed) and the Senate (possible), we should calibrate our expectations of our elected representatives with an optimistic, not cynical, attitude toward Congress. At its best, Congress’ two parties engage in a vigorous contest of ideas, a contest whose goal isn’t gridlock but rather compromise. As difficult as it may be, we should hold our congressmen and congresswomen to that standard. The coming climate in Washington, D.C. can, should and will be different and better than the present one.
Idealism means working toward incremental change while keeping our eyes set firmly on a perfect future, even if that perfect future is asymptotic. For example, we should celebrate how many American students, especially those from minority and low-income backgrounds, are graduating public high school and enrolling in college. Yet we shouldn’t just settle for small improvements. Instead, let’s imagine a country with no difference between the educational outcomes of any particular demographic of students. Even though free community college is a reality for millions of Americans today, we should be unafraid to envision a country in which every American student who wants a four-year college education can access one.
In practice, that means creating a culture in which high schools, especially those in struggling communities, refuse to remain satisfied with merely handing out a diploma. Instead of focusing on the end result, we should insist that high school is merely a step toward real, tangible upward mobility for every American. It means daring to ease our reliance on vocational or technical education as the goal for minority and low-income students and instead having faith that all children — no matter their skin color, their household income, zip code or family situation — have a right to a comprehensive, liberating education.
Idealism means reaffirming our faith that individuals can, in fact, make other people’s lives better. At Yale, it means having the freedom to aim for an unknown professional future and the courage to reject the notion that college — even an elite one like ours — should merely prepare one for specific employment. It means committing to a life of service to others — no matter the what industry — even if that life might stray from the highest earnings or most prestigious titles.
Finally, and most importantly, idealism means believing in a new, aspirational, poetic version of the American story, one by which, as Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 says, our greatest monument on this earth isn’t what we build, but the lives we touch. Now, more than ever, there’s plenty of reason to understand that our union is quickly and confidently becoming more perfect. In a few short weeks, we will both make history and prove to the world that America is a fair-minded and big-hearted country. We will attempt to build on the progress this country has made by furthering a more inclusive, more agile and more effective American politics. We will reaffirm that America’s goodness makes it a city upon a hill.
Now, more than ever and in so many different respects, we should replace our dogged pragmatism with idealism. Now, we can afford to take that leap.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .