A week isn't a long time to digest a presidential election, all that came before it and all that's likely to come after. But it's long enough to get a bit of perspective.
Max Weber wrote that "politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards." Progress is slow. It requires compromises and is marked by disappointments. It is incremental even when it needs to be transformational. At least that's how it usually is.
But step back and take an accounting of the past few years: The United States of America - a land where slaves were kept 150 years ago and bathrooms were segregated as recently as 50 years ago - elected and re-elected its first black president. It passed and ratified a universal health care system. It saw the first female House speaker, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and the first openly gay senator-elect. The nation stopped a great depression, rewrote it's financial regulations and nearly defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history. Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington state and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex marriage. Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana. The United States killed the most dangerous terrorist in the world and managed two wars. It has seen inequality and debt skyrocket. It passed an economic stimulus and investment bill that will transform everything from medical records to education and began a drone campaign that probably will be considered an epochal shift in the way the United States conducts war.
Americans of good faith disagree about the worth of these initiatives and the nature of these milestones. None of us knows the verdict that history will render. But we can say with certainty that the pace of change has been breathlessly fast. We have toppled so many barriers, completed so many long quests, begun so many experiments, that even those who have been paying attention have become inured to how much has happened.
It is common to hear pundits wonder why the president didn't invest in long-term infrastructure or move Medicare beyond a fee-for-service system as a way to cut the debt, either forgetting or never knowing that the stimulus package was one of the largest one-time infrastructure investments in the nation's history and that the Affordable Care Act is the most ambitious effort ever to move U.S. health care toward a pay-for-quality paradigm.
The even more frequent complaint is that the pace and scale of change has been, if anything, insufficient. The stimulus package should have been bigger, the health care reforms more ambitious, the largest banks broken apart, the wars either finished more swiftly or expanded more decisively. All that may be true, but it doesn't obviate the remarkable pace and scale of the changes that have come.
Once change has happened, it takes time for it to be felt. The health care law, for instance, won't take effect until 2014. And in some cases, the extraordinary efforts were meant to keep something from happening. Our success in stopping a great depression will be studied by economists for years, but in real people's lives, it meant less change, not more, although we should be thankful for that.
Political journalism is built to obscure change once it has occurred. The demands of reporting the news require us to focus on what is being done rather than what has been done (less than a week after the presidential election, we have already moved on to the Petraeus affair). The focus on conflict elevates voices that argue we haven't done nearly enough, or that what we've done wasn't worth doing.
There is a theory in evolutionary biology called "punctuated equilibrium." It holds that most species don't change much for long periods of time, but then they change dramatically, in rapid bursts, over geologically short periods of time.
Political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones have argued that "punctuated equilibrium" describes the path of political systems, too. Typically, politics is held in stasis, with little progress being made in the slow boring of those hard boards. But when change does come, it's not a steady process of incremental advances but a breathless flurry in which the boards give all at once.
Whether we intended to or not, whether it was sufficient or not, whether we liked it or not, we have been living through a remarkable period of political change in these past years. We have bored through so many hard boards that we're no longer surprised when we reach the other side, and we mainly wonder why we haven't gotten through more of them, or why we didn't choose different ones. But viewed against most other eras in American life, the pace of policy change in these past few years has been incredibly fast. Historians, looking back from more quiescent periods, will marvel at all that we have lived through. Activists, frustrated by their inability to shake their countrymen out of their tranquility, will wish they had been born in a moment when things were actually getting done, a moment like this one.
Ezra Klein is a columnist at the Washington Post.