If you have a proposal that will meaningfully improve our inequality-wracked nation, it will not be long before a wise, sympathetic friend places a hand on your shoulder and says, in a sympathetic tone: “I’m very sorry, but America just isn’t ready for that yet.”
America isn’t ready for a woman president. America isn’t ready for higher taxes on the rich. America isn’t ready for public health care. America isn’t ready for free college. America isn’t ready to move past fossil fuels. America isn’t ready to legalize drugs. America isn’t ready to stop putting millions of people in jail. America isn’t ready to make police social workers instead of soldiers. America isn’t ready to pay women what men make. America isn’t ready to close the racial wealth gap. America isn’t ready for equality. America isn’t ready, isn’t ready, isn’t ready. Let’s take those baby steps.
We’ve heard this before. America isn’t ready to end slavery. America isn’t ready to let women vote. America isn’t ready to let black people vote. America isn’t ready to end segregation. America isn’t ready to legalize abortion. America isn’t ready to legalize gay marriage. America isn’t ready to legalize marijuana. America isn’t ready for a black president. America just isn’t ready. Why don’t you be reasonable?
The irony of this permanent refrain in American politics is that it is always based on the idea that it represents the mature, rational position, despite the fact that history has proven it to be wrong over and over and over again. Indeed, a standard-issue middle school history textbook is nothing but an ongoing chronicle of great, historic leaps forward—all of which by definition were shocking to the establishment of their day, one way or another. You would think that the establishment, representing as it does the most respected, most powerful, and ostensibly wisest class of society, would eventually draw the conclusion that political progress, driven by movements, is in fact a constant occurrence, and America’s social and political history tends to hurtle forwards (and backwards) in dramatic fashion, rather than plodding steadily ahead in a careful, predictable way.
But no. We have to keep hearing that America isn’t ready.
Take anecdotal evidence for what it’s worth, but I tend to hear this sober, defeatist perspective most from people of my parents’ generation. I have had many conversations with Baby Boomers who are thoroughly progressive in their ideals but equally sure that those ideals are fantasies that will never come true in the world. Until they do. Bernie is great but he can never be a serious force; Ocasio-Cortez is great but she is unrealistic; labor unions are great but they will never catch on again in our modern world. I have had all of these conversations with adults who are intelligent, liberal, well-meaning, and wrong. There is a reason why most meaningful political movements are driven by young people. When we are younger, it is easier to see the world as it should be. The older we get, the more we come to accept the world as it is. With age comes wisdom, but that can easily calcify into complacency. Young people are rash and ignorant, but that can be an asset when it’s time to do things that are hard.
It is not more savvy, or serious, or wise to say that America is not ready for changes that we all understand would be great improvements. It is defeatist and foolish. It denies ourselves agency. It ignores history. And ultimately it makes you complicit in the injustice that you are too quick to accept as immovable.
America is ready for whatever we are ready for, because we are America. America has already made many changes much more radical than the redistribution of income away from the very rich, or the end of the idea that imprisoning as many people as possible makes us safer, or the acknowledgement that we must listen to climate scientists and act on the information they give us. The ideas that are today dismissed as too radical by self-proclaimed pragmatists are utterly pragmatic. There is nothing absurd about wanting our society to proceed directly to the best possible solution to our problems without dawdling along the way for the sake of some vague idea about bipartisanship. What is absurd is knowing exactly how our problems should be solved, but failing to solve them because we do not believe that we will be successful. Give me a fucking break. When the surviving billionaires are boarding their escape pod for Mars as the rest of us are swallowed by rising seas, I hope that all of those who counseled patience and moderation take satisfaction in the knowledge that we didn’t move too fast.
America is ready. If you are not ready, just stand in the back. There are plenty of other people ready to take the lead.