In a year exhausted by one of the more frenetic news agendas in memory, an easily overlooked development has been the re-emergence of patient, persistent civic engagement and activism.
The massive marches that rang in the new year dispersed, but we didn’t go home. We packed airports to thwart a travel ban, and jammed phone lines to protect people’s health insurance. We stood up to bigots with torches, and stood up for young immigrants facing deportation to countries they don’t even know. We, the people, grabbed clipboards and started running for office in numbers never seen—not merely to resist something, but to reach for something better.
There’s a fundamentally optimistic proposition at the core of this activism. It’s the idea that while our past may be immutable and our politics unpredictable, our destiny is neither of these things. It’s the idea that the long arc of history is something we have the power to shape.
The question for 2018 and beyond is whether or not this activism will be sustained. Progress is often slow and unsatisfying, and we’re conditioned to expect our information and our gratification right away. Alerts crowd our home screens, and a storm of social media lurks just beyond—torrents of argument without mission, and finger-pointing without direction. Every setback risks disappointment, the sting of heckles from a cynical choir, and worst of all, the creeping doubt that maybe one’s efforts don’t matter, and aren’t worth it.
The trick is to think of progress—the act of bending history for the better—the same way a politician from my home state of Illinois once challenged us to think of patriotism: “not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
In my ten years as a speechwriter for Barack Obama, I’ve been fortunate to experience a few moments when it really did feel like the present gave way to the swirl of history. An electric evening in Grant Park when a young president-elect who looked like no other took the stage. A spontaneous assembly on Pennsylvania Avenue when word spread that the murderous boogeyman behind 9/11 was no more. A joyous June morning when the Supreme Court ruled that all marriage is equal.
Each time, we took care to commemorate the people who made those moments possible—the countless individuals whose tranquil and steady dedication piled up until history’s walls could no longer hold. The civil-rights pioneers who braved beatings and fire hoses and walked the tread off their shoes so that voters could ultimately cast those ballots. The intelligence officers who hunted for years, across presidencies, and a new generation that signed up to serve so that special operators could carry out that mission. The courage of all the ordinary citizens who came out—and who chose to love those who did—because it pruned the path for activists to work the courts until justice ultimately prevailed.
That’s the thing about history. It’s measured by the big moments. But the truth is, history is made every day.
Americans forget this sometimes. We’re an impatient people, restless and aspirational, chronically dissatisfied with the status quo. America was born, after all, of rebellion—a defiant decree that we can do better. And our birth cry was perfect: a declaration that all of us are created equal. It was written by imperfect men, of course, who owned slaves and denied entire categories of society the right to participate in the new government they instituted for themselves. They admitted as much, right there in our charter, a constitution that instructed us to do better, to form a “more” perfect union.
That charge is what compelled all our great efforts to bend history in a better direction. To stretch a railroad across a continent and go to the moon. To create a system of public schools and higher education that help us climb, and a social safety net to catch us when we fall. To storm far shores and lead great movements at home to make real the ideals of our founding, not just for ourselves, but for everybody: women and African-Americans, workers and immigrants, Americans with disabilities and different orientations, all faiths and creeds.
That’s how we’ve gradually, steadily made ourselves more perfect—with perseverance, patience and, above all, trust in one another. Yes, sometimes history is bent by those with power and money. But it’s more often bent by people without much of either—unheralded, anonymous citizens who believe in a cause and rally others to their side, even at great risk to themselves, because they recognize that their efforts matter. They know that history is made every day.
That’s a source of sustenance for today’s new generation of impatient activists. It’s a source of guidance, too. We can and should argue about our history—our brightest moments and darkest failures and the complex forces that conspired to create them. We have built-in yardsticks, after all—other presidencies, wars, economic shifts, protest movements—to tell us how we’re doing as a society, and to remind us what agency we have to do better.
Past protests of an unjust status quo, like sitting at a lunch counter in Greensboro, or crossing a bridge in Selma, reveal the longer game at stake in taking a knee on the sideline. Votes by past Congresses disclose whether today’s laws will lessen inequality, or lock it in for a generation. Responses to industrialization, like labor movements and the decades-long lacing of a safety net, are road maps to improve the position of workers in an information age. The stories of other nations offer test cases for reducing gun violence—and flash warning signals in the complacent slide from democratic to authoritarian rule.
History is full of such lessons. It’s not made by the complacent, nor by the absolutist. History is made by the persistent, who know that their efforts pile up, day by day, year by year, into unstoppable cascades of common endeavor. History is made by the confident, who know that even when our achievements are incremental, unsatisfying and unfinished, they are achievements all the same, precious progress worth defending and building upon. History is made, every day, by the hopeful, who know that the story of America is a story of progress—and that it’s a story written by everyone who keeps showing up.
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.