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Waiting for Godot: a Tale of American Democracy

“Nothing to be and done.”

So begins Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot.

It’s a play I revisit every now and then. Each time it resonates on a different level—existential, psychological, social.

The other day I took the thin volume down from my bookshelves and read it again, captivated and curious, like it’s my first time. And as I contemplated on its gloomy bare stage, I thought of the United States of America. Its gloomy bare political stage.

Beckett’s two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, spend their time waiting for Godot who never arrives. Under a leafless tree they sit, stand, talk, speculate, even consider hanging themselves. They pass the time and they wait.

Vladimir: Say something!

Estragon: I’m trying.

[Long silence.]

Vladimir (in anguish): Say anything at all!

Estragon: What do we do now?

Vladimir: Wait for Godot.

Estragon: Ah!

[Silence.]

Vladimir: This is awful.

And here we are in America. Waiting. Some are waiting for the midterms, some for Mueller, for impeachment. Others are waiting for walls to be built. Waiting for wealth to be theirs. Waiting for America to be great again.

While some are still waiting for justice and equality.

Some, merely for a glimpse of decency and honesty.

It seems as if no matter who or what our Godot is, we are all Vladimirs and Estragons. Weary, we wait. We wait for that which does not arrive.

With the midterms looming, headlines in the media about the demise of democracy in America have multiplied, yet the crisis is nothing new. American democracy has never been complete, never been perfect. In Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, philosopher and social activist Cornel West writes:

The American democratic experiment is unique in human history not because we are God’s chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy.

As long as the dire realities of blind patriotism, bigotry, moral indifference, self-absorption, disdain and fear of others abound, democracy simply cannot live up to its promise in this most diverse nation. As long as political and legal rights remain restricted, as long as civil liberties are eclipsed by financial interests, as long as political violence is an everyday threat…oppression and suffering will keep breathing in the shadow of the ideal that is American democracy. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” will remain a mirage.

Vladimir: What’s the matter with you?

Estragon: I’m unhappy.

Vladimir: Not really! Since when?

Estragon: I’d forgotten. 

Midterms will be over soon. There will be old and new senators and congressmen, and congresswomen, in the ranks. They will lobby. They will fundraise. Bills will pass. Bills will fail. Large corporations, billionaires, and big donors will continue to triumph. Money will keep pouring into the campaigns. 2020. 2024. 2028. Citizens will go back to the ballot boxes. Votes will be counted. Presidents will come and go. Politicians will rise and fall.

Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps back, one step forward. The clumsy dance of American politics. A tragicomedy.

Vladimir: Charming evening we’re having.

Estragon: Unforgettable.

Vladimir: And it’s not over.

Estragon: Apparently not.

Vladimir: It’s only the beginning. 

Estragon: It’s awful.

Vladimir: Worse than the pantomime.

Vladimir: The circus. 

At one point during their wait, Estragon says, “I can’t go on like this.” Vladimir responds, “That’s what you think.” And they go on waiting.

And we, the American public, go on waiting. Polarized. Angry. Pained. Confused. We criticize, argue, resist. We think we resist.

Vladimir: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.

Estragon: It’s so we won’t think. 

Vladimir: We have that excuse. 

Estragon: So we won’t hear. 

Vladimir: We have our reasons. 

We, too, have our reasons. We have our fears. We have our pleas. We gain hope, we lose hope. We repeat.

Estragon pulls off his boot. He peers inside it, turns it upside down, shakes it, feels inside it. Vladimir picks up his hat, peers inside it, shakes it, puts it back on. And they repeat.

The most important part of it all is that like Vladimir and Estragon—no matter how estranged, no matter how troubled—we continue to co-exist. For better or worse. Democrats, Republicans, independents. Different races, ages, regions. Those who stand in opposition whether the subject matter is immigration, same-sex marriage, health-care, taxes, climate change, or capitalism. Those who hate each other’s guts, threaten each other’s lives over reproductive or religious rights, gun-control or criminal justice. All of them, all of us. We are bound by that which is the country we call home. We are the divided people of the United States.

Boy: [in a rush] Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.

[Silence.]

I place Beckett’s book on my desk. Consider writing something about the midterms. On the dangers of apathy, importance of civic engagement. The urgency. Then I pause. I take off my hat, peer inside it, put it back on.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

Curtain

More articles by:

Ipek S. Burnett is a psychologist, novelist, and academic living in San Francisco.

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