In late October of 1995, I was born in what was until now the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history. My father is a federal employee, and needless to say, my entrance to the word couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was rocked in my parents’ arms to the sound of late-night news programs while they wondered when my father might be able to return to work. Or if he would be able to return.
That miserable shutdown’s record has been broken as we … I don’t know, make America great again? Oddly enough, this doesn’t feel like greatness to me. And as families of hard-working federal employees struggle to pay rent, afford medical prescriptions and put food in their children’s bellies, I know that I am not alone in asking, “Aren’t we supposed to be tired of winning? What is it that we’ve won?”
I tend to avoid discussing political issues in my writing, primarily because my father is employed by the government. I also think about my future career as a teacher, and how I will need to keep any personal political leanings I have discreet. I wouldn’t want my name associated with a strongly-worded political diatribe written in college, especially given that our opinions are bound to change during our later years as adults in “the real world.” Yet this shutdown isn’t some far-off headline lost in a jumble of political squabbling: it is our lives that have been shut down.
I think about how many families have sat around the kitchen table in fractious silence, heads in hands, with bills spread out imposingly where Christmas cards should have been. After all that campaign rhetoric about saying “Merry Christmas” again, this nightmare began as the nation’s worst Christmas present and stretched on long after the trees and strings of lights were put away.
January is nearing its end, but there is no end in sight for the real people who are lining up at food banks as you read this. There are children fearfully listening to their parents worry over money, and they will not forget what they hear. While tweets are exchanged and compromises are critiqued, there are families like mine all across the country who wait in limbo to see when (or if) our lives can return to normal.
What pains me most is the cause of the shutdown: a southern border wall which the vast majority of Americans do not want. I laughed at the notion of it in 2016. It was a punchline then, a preposterous joke which seemed as realistic as building a barrier of gingerbread straight from a children’s book of fairytales. I listened to news clips of ecstatic supporters screaming “Build the wall!” and wondered how they could desire such a thing. The sea of red hats and thundering choruses of chants do not seem funny at all now. They were never genuinely funny to begin with, actually. Nervous laughter at what seemed impossible has now turned into real pain, division and discord.
How could any American justify fighting for this wall at the expense of their fellow citizens, who are suffering daily because of this shutdown? I am as mad at the fanatic supporters of the wall as I am at the politicians fighting for it in Washington. I accept that there will always be division and controversy surrounding the methods any presidential administration suggests to enforce border security and immigration laws.
What I refuse to accept is that this is the only way we can go about doing it. It is not democratic to inflict misery on innocent families by depriving them of their livelihood, holding the country hostage in a national tantrum stoked by fear-mongering and misinformation. This is supposed to be the home of the brave. Are we so afraid of other people seeking entry to this country that we are willing to destroy ourselves in an effort to hide behind walls?
If that is the case, then we have not made America “great again.” We’ve made America cowardly.