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Why D.C. dysfunction is doom-pilling Americans under 40

This week’s vote on the infrastructure and reconciliation bills appears on the brink of doom. Even if they pass, darkness remains on the horizon.

Why D.C. dysfunction is doom-pilling Americans under 40
[Source Photo: Petrovich9/iStock and rawpixel and kybrida13/iStock]

Maybe it’s just the Christopher Nolan movies talking, but lately I keep thinking about the present from the perspective of the future. I imagine Americans in 2051 adjusting their smog shields on a canoe ride to the war tribunals, thinking back to this era, and cursing us all—possibly on the 2051 equivalent of Twitter. (If the internet is still around. Or, for that matter, if we are.)

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Optimism can be a powerful drug. Someone armed with hope in the face of overwhelming odds is better equipped to deal with them than a sans-hope person with the same skill set. At this point, however, the dystopian near-future that the heroes of those Nolan movies are contacted by feels almost inevitable. As we attempt to fend off, or resign ourselves to, myriad intersecting calamities each day, the act of hoping for better feels not revolutionary but increasingly delusional. What has instead seeped into daily life like a slow and steady gas leak is not even pessimism, hope’s misfit twin, but something much darker: a profound and pervasive absence of hope. Amidst the endgame of Joe Biden’s quixotic pursuit of a signature legislation, the wheels are coming off, the ship is sinking, and the nihilism vibes have never been stronger.

Consider, if you will, the first week of September. It started with Hurricane Ida, the latest of the year’s many natural catastrophes, claiming over 80 lives and knocking out power indefinitely in over one million Louisiana homes. Next came news that the U.S. had accidentally killed seven Afghan children and three adult civilians in a drone strike intended for ISIS-K, as many on both sides argued that not continuing military intervention in the region was a huge mistake. After that, the Supreme Court allowed a Texas bill banning abortion after six weeks to take effect, stripping bodily autonomy from women in the state and posing a major threat to Roe v. Wade nationwide. Finally, New York hit record rainfall as the tail end of Ida swept through the state, killing 16 people and reminding everyone that nowhere is safe from climate-related disasters. Meanwhile, COVID-19 continued to surge back toward the “a 9/11 a day” levels of death not seen since February, with the right-wing commentariat vehemently fighting against vaccine mandates and other precautions every step of the way.

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Somehow, each of us is expected to simply go about our days with all of this unfolding in the background; for many newly remote workers, quite literally so—with an open news site tab dispensing ill tidings through consecutive Zoom meetings.

If such a thing as hope could be said to exist right now, it’s arguably in the form of the Build Back Better Act, which was inextricably linked to the bipartisan infrastructure bill until earlier this week. The sweeping bill, which would cost $3.5 trillion over 10 years, paid for in part by taxes on the wealthy and corporations, offers an expansion of Medicare, critical support for working families, and addresses climate change in concrete ways. A majority of the public supports the bill, with even a Fox News poll showing 56% of registered voters in favor of the hefty package.

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With so much in its favor, of course the bill seems doomed.

Not only have the Democrats been hamstrung by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has forced them into raising the debt ceiling through reconciliation at the finish line, but intraparty fighting threatens to sink both bills. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema object to Build Back Better on ideologically incoherent grounds, while the progressive wing of the party threatens to obstruct the infrastructure bill if their already compromised priorities are further diluted by centrist demands. The party stands at incompatible loggerheads, a photo-negative of the divided GOP in its bungled attempts to remove Obamacare under Trump. Finding a solution by Thursday’s scheduled vote appears well beyond its grasp.

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Unfortunately, the stakes could not be higher. It’s not so much that this reconciliation bill would solve all of America’s problems, or even a substantial portion of them. Rather, it’s that a smooth rollout of such potentially monumental legislation would prove that Democrats can effectively govern, deliver on some major promises, and be more than simply the not-MAGA party. Passing the robust bill set would be a huge step toward bridging the generational gap between young voters frustrated that nothing ever seems to get done, and their parents, who urge them to keep voting for Democrats anyway, in the hopes that one day something hypothetically could get done.

It would also give the economy a jumpstart, provide Biden a much-needed shot in the arm after a summer plagued by horrible headlines, both earned and otherwise, and show the rest of the world that America is indeed serious about addressing climate change.

I just don’t know how to feel like it might still happen, though.

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With every headline about Senator Sinema’s fundraisers from business lobbyists, or Senator Manchin’s houseboat get-togethers, America’s future seems to hinge on the whims of careless children. Like nothing really matters to them. Like nothing really matters at all.

Meanwhile, Republicans are sharpening their knives, getting ready for warfare in the coming elections. In between alternately bemoaning the scourge of cancel culture and banning certain lesson plans from schoolrooms, they’ve been carefully cultivating mechanisms to settle future disputed elections in their favor. The party whose only major accomplishments during the Trump era were a tax cut for the wealthy and a thoroughly politicized pandemic is now poised to wrest control of the steering wheel back from its only opponent, and the Democrats seem largely content to let them do it.

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Those of us who have neither power nor influence can only sit back and watch the slow-motion plane crash—or better yet, shrink it down into background noise unfurling in an open tab. (Did you hear? Netflix’s Squid Game is a violent, addictive romp!) Sometimes it feels like the only way to get through another nail-biter of a day, where the thing you’re biting your nails about is an all-consuming existential crisis, is to dissociate—to will it all into not mattering at all.

Viewed from a nihilistic distance, the history-determining decisions of the present day can’t break your heart. All they can do is make you look ahead, to the Americans of 2051—the ones likely looking back at us with daggers in their eyes—and nod in agreement.

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