If the size of a crowd is any indication, politics in Rhode Island – while it may be a topic of conversation around holiday dinner tables – is certainly not a spectator sport.
The second inauguration of Governor Gina Raimondo seemed to feature more state government officials, state police and military dignitaries on the front steps of the State House than gathered attendees in the seats below. When considering that many, if not a majority, of those seated in attendance were friends, colleagues or family members of said people on the steps, the lack of public interest truly shined through.
It may be an unfair measurement of political engagement within the state, considering the ceremony occurred at noontime on New Year’s Day – thanks to a funny little provision in the Rhode Island Constitution which states inaugurations must always occur on the first Tuesday in January – however voter turnout doesn’t do much to dispel such notions, since election data showed that only around 44 percent of registered voters in Rhode Island actually turned out to vote this past November.
Even in presidential election years, voter turnout often fluctuates in the low 60 percent range, which begs the question of why some people even bother registering to vote in the first place if they aren’t going to exercise their most fundamental right as an American citizen.
Regardless, the lack of interest in hearing Raimondo’s speech may go beyond not wanting to sit in 40 mile per hour winds on a national holiday – one which likely left many unwilling (or unable) to get out of bed until they were unwittingly jolted awake by the artillery fire of a 19-gun salute from the Rhode Island National Guard.
Today’s public very well could be suffering from the phenomenon known as voter fatigue, however we find it more likely that the people of Rhode Island are actually suffering from a more generalized, widespread case of political fatigue.
There’s no point in sidestepping around it. The past two years have been unorthodox and exceptionally abnormal in terms of what we’re accustomed to when it comes to the national political scene. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, the 24-hour news cycle has taken this period of abnormality and squeezed for every drop of its nectar for well over 1,000 days in a row, if you count the run-up to the 2016 election.
Since that historic moment, we’ve been bombarded daily by alleged (and continuously developing) scandal, comprehensive investigations, embattled Supreme Court appointments, environmental crises, mass shootings, hate-fueled Twitter rants, unprecedented overturn within the highest governmental offices, a government shutdown and, perhaps most importantly, a constant reminder that we have never been more divided than we are as a country right now in this moment.
Raimondo echoed that sentiment in her speech and called for Rhode Islanders to recognize their inherent cohesion as members of a state that was formed as a response to oppressive establishments. Although it is hard to definitively measure something as ambiguous as “divisiveness” – and although we may think Raimondo may be underestimating how divided our country actually was during time periods when minorities were literally seen as worth less than “real” people – her point is well taken.
Unfortunately, calls for unity amidst a state of politically fatigued citizens doesn’t really do much. Those who have chosen a stance against the direction of the president and his policies don’t need to be reminded that we work better when we stick together. Those who remain in support of the president have likewise chosen their side, and to recognize these realities is to recognize that there are certain insurmountable differences that underlie the major issues in political discourse today. In fact, there may be less distance between the Earth and the Kuiper Belt space rock Ultima Thule – which was just passed by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft at a distance of over 4 billion miles away – than there is between the philosophies of a Trump-supporting Republican and a liberal Democrat in Rhode Island today.
This is not to say that we should give up and accept that political discourse is effectively dead in America, or that our differences will ultimately undermine our ability to compromise and make our state, and country, a better place. However, we do hope that Governor Raimondo will recognize that our citizens are fatigued, and do her best to not make us any more cynical and disinterested about politics in the state than we already appear to be.