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Davis, California

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Column: Ungraceful decline

I work in Sacramento three days out of the week so I spend an unholy amount of time sitting on the bus commuting. I happened to pick up a copy of the Sacramento News & Review, a Sacramento alternative weekly, a few days ago while waiting for the bus to head back into Davis. The feature story that week, “Legacy,” was written to Fred Branfman, an old friend of the author. This letter reminisced on the past and touched upon a range of issues, both political and apolitical.

In the letter, Branfman writes about the years spent in protest of the Vietnam War and about a successful career in politics that left little room for a personal life. He speaks about the disappointment of working for decades to pursue the great Anglo-American ideal of trying to make the world of tomorrow a little better than it is today only to witness the gradual, ungraceful decline of his country and the steady destruction of the biosphere.

It’s not an uplifting letter, but there are passages that left me thinking deeply. Branfman writes about the corrosion of discourse and civility in public debate. To him, the trait of seeing which political party can gut the other first is a recipe for the end of any semblance of national greatness. Instead, the America of future generations will only be a shadow of what could have been.

So why does this matter? So what if the politicians in Washington can’t agree on, well, pretty much anything? Why should you and I care?

Put simply, the country we’re going to inherit and run ourselves in a few decades will be the equivalent of a faulty car moving forward simply due to the sheer weight of the system. It will be an ugly decline. Unless your plan is to immigrate to New Zealand when the going gets rough, we’re going to have to fix this mess ourselves. Clearly hoping that the politicians are going effectively tackle the mess labeled USA as a misguided dream.

Yet, many younger Americans did have faith a few years ago when the Obama campaign was peddling its hope and change mantra. And they tried. The corrosiveness and partisanship of Washington, however, clearly proved more than a match for the change we wanted to believe in. When you have the top Republican in the Senate saying that his party’s main goal is to defeat Obama, clearly it’s a hopeless cause to think anything productive is going to be accomplished.

Clearly, we have a problem and it begs a solution. Honestly, I say we just ban the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s impossible to get to work on the big issues facing the country – maintaining prosperity in a globalized economy, raising the quality-of-life for all Americans, figuring out what exactly we’re going to do with an Earth we’re seemingly racing to destroy – when politicians are taking potshots at each other from across the Capitol aisle. We need post-partisanship, non-ideological coalitions who could care less about whether there’s a donkey or an elephant on the official letterhead of White House Christmas cards.

While we’re at it, let’s limit corporate and private individuals’ money in the political field. God, this is such a no-brainer! The notion that one wealthy casino could bankroll a major Republican contender for the presidency is sickening (go Google the words ‘Gingrich’ and ‘casino owner’). Yet that’s the system in which we live in. The voice of ordinary people will always be a second-class citizen to the moneyed elite. Democracy? What democracy?

Branfman is still fighting for his democracy despite its battered appearance. He’s in his 70s now yet the setbacks and lack of progress – indeed, the reversal of progress – hasn’t led him to give up. This refusal to admit defeat is what left the greatest impression on the article. He simply hasn’t grown apathetic.

I’m sure he has his own reasons as to why he still cares. No doubt some of them are deeply personal. But there’s also the simple fact that his prosperity was and still is integrally intertwined with his country. He fought for his political causes over the years because he knew that his fortunes would be unlikely to rise if the collective health of the country was in decline.

The same holds true for us. If our country is a wreck thirty years from now, that can’t possibly bode well for our own future prosperity.

Contact JONATHAN NELSON at jdnelson@ucdavis.edu. Just do it.

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