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Witnessing a breathtaking era of change

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.” It is not a vocation that rewards impatience. Progress is slow. It requires compromises and is marked by disappointments. It’s incremental even when it needs to be transformational – at least usually.

But step back and take an accounting of the past few years: The United States of America – 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 the nation’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, and the president and the vice president proclaimed their support. 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. But we can say with certainty that the pace of change has been breathlessly fast. Even those of us who have been paying attention have become inured to how much has happened.

It is common, for instance, to hear pundits wonder why the president didn’t invest in long-term infrastructure after the financial crisis 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 mounted to move American 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. More troublesome is that even once change has happened, it takes time for it to be felt. The health care law, for instance, won’t take full 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 for years to come, but in real people’s lives, that work meant less change, not more, although we should be thankful for that.

Political journalism, meanwhile, is built to obscure change once it has occurred. The demands of reporting require us to focus on what is being done rather than what has been done (notice how, less than a week after the election, we already moved on to the Petraeus affair). The focus on conflict elevates voices that argue that we haven’t done nearly enough or that what we’ve done wasn’t worth doing. The internal culture of the media encourages a kind of jaded cynicism – you’re always safer pretending to have seen it all before than admitting to having never seen anything like it.

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 will marvel at all that we have lived through. Activists, frustrated by their inability to shake their countrymen, will wish they had been born in a moment when things were actually getting done, a moment like this one.

Ezra Klein is a Washington Post columnist.