The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s nearly 2017! Can we finally retire the current year as an argument for social change?

It's a lazy and unconvincing rationale.

Not so fast. (iStock)

Looking back at 2016, it’s remarkable how often the year was invoked as an argument against its own events.

Take just a few examples. A CNN article implored: “It’s 2016. What’s with all the sexism?” A Los Angeles Times op-ed reminded readers, “It’s 2016 and the civil rights era hasn’t ended.” A post at Grist marveled, “It’s 2016, and we’re arguing about the constitutional validity of Roe v. Wade.” And Ellen DeGeneres scolded Georgia for its “religious liberty” bill with the tweet: “It’s 2016 and we’re still talking about equal rights for everyone. Georgia, you are better than this.” The tic was especially prevalent on the left but not exclusive to it: The libertarian magazine Reason wondered how school districts could ban “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” in light of what year it was.

As common as citing the current year has become, as a rhetorical technique it’s exceedingly feeble. Those who employ it frequently fail to formulate additional planks for their arguments. They seem to think it’s obvious why something in the current year should be an affront to our sensibilities. But they should realize that their notions of moral progress are hardly universal, and invoking the current year is a tone-deaf way to engage with anyone who doesn’t already agree with them.

The broad assumption in the “current year” argument is that time inevitably ticks toward moral betterment. It’s a view that’s been espoused in different forms by the likes of Immanuel Kant (who wrote about “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”), Karl Marx (who talked about emerging consciousness) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” ). If you’re a progressive, you probably take moral progress as an article of faith.

If you’re a conservative, a member of the political right or maybe just a working-class person who pines for a sunnier past, however, there’s a decent chance you’re skeptical of this concept. Mockery of the “current year” argument — especially as regularly employed by comedian John Oliver — has become a meme in some far-right circles. But you don’t need to be on the political extreme to perceive a world in decline. And in this context, 2016 was not one of those “meandering points of bewilderment” that King described but the continuation of a troubling trend.

Roughly half of Americans believe that the 1950s were better than today, according to a PRRI survey published in October. Predictably, whites were more likely to agree with this idea than other racial groups. But the class divide is more interesting: Sixty-five percent of white working-class respondents said the ’50s were better. Fifty-six percent of white college-educated respondents said the ’50s were worse.

This is understandable. For white people without advanced degrees and good jobs, the world is getting demonstrably worse. Real wages have been stagnant for 40 years, while low-skilled jobs have been disappearing.

White life expectancy, although higher than it was in 1950, has declined slightly in recent years. A Washington Post analysis explained: “The things that reduce the risk of death are now being overwhelmed by things that elevate it, including opioid abuse, heavy drinking, smoking and other self-destructive behaviors.”

White people without college degrees have been rocked by the decline of marriage, as well. As economists Shelly Lundberg, Robert A. Pollack and Jenna Stearns wrote in the May issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives : “Compared with college graduates, less-educated women are more likely to enter into cohabiting partnerships early and bear children while cohabiting, are less likely to transition quickly into marriage, and have much higher divorce rates. For this group, rising rates of cohabitation and non-marital childbearing contribute to family histories of relatively unstable relationships and frequent changes in family structure.”

Citing the current year might be an effective scold for people who think there’s something wrong with the past — but it’s utterly perplexing to people who think that on balance the past was fine or perhaps better than today.

When someone writes, as Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin did in October, “I can’t believe in 2016 we have a presidential candidate who supports overturning Roe v Wade,” a skeptic might reasonably respond: Why is that so surprising? Forty-one percent of Americans think abortion should be illegal, and 49 percent say having an abortion is morally wrong.

Or when someone like former Carolina Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman expresses frustration that “it’s 2016 and we’re having the conversation of color . . . we’re still repeating bad history,” one might note that he fails to engage with why some people still look at black and white football players differently.

Each time progressives invoke the current year, they give up an opportunity to rigorously defend their position and convince others to see their point of view. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prompted cheers in November 2015 when he answered a question about why gender parity was important in his administration by saying, “Because it’s 2015.” Similarly, Bustle, reflecting on Donald Trump’s Cabinet appointees, lamented, “It’s 2016 . . . and in this modern age, you might’ve thought we’d come further in terms of equality and diversity than, well, it now looks like we have.” Missing is any argument about why Trump shouldn’t have selected the people he nominated or why diversity is important.

Now that we’re entering a new year, we’ve thankfully heard the last of the admonishment: “It’s 2016.” But progressives should understand that for many Americans, the current year is more menacing than hopeful, and it would be good to retire the “current year” argument once and for all.