America Lost. America Found.
They’ve all come to look for America.
-Simon & Garfunkel
O, let America be America again
The land that never has been yet —
– Langston Hughes
America is a land of being and becoming. A democratic republic that has been in existence for 244 years. And a nation still in search of itself.
The nature and results of this year’s presidential election prove this search will take years, and possibly decades, to reach the “more perfect union” envisioned by the founding fathers. Joe Biden’s winning the presidency by a narrow margin, in an extremely divided country, both nationally and within these so-called “United States,” attest to that stark reality.
The presidential election was more proof that 2020 has been the year of living dangerously for Americans. 2020 was also the year of magical thinking by the President regarding COVID-19.
Because of this many Americans did not live through the year. They died prematurely.
Others lost their lives in police confrontations. Others lost their jobs. Others lost their businesses. Others lost hope for racial justice. Others lost faith in the American dream. Others lost the ability to be civil. Others lost the capacity to respect their fellow man and woman. Others lost themselves and their family and friends.
Can that which was lost be found again? Can new things be discovered to replace those things which were lost? Those are questions to be addressed later in this piece.
For now, let’s look briefly at the impact of these losses on the American psyche and spirit. The New York Times Sunday Review (Review) published on November 1, two days before the election, was titled “What Have We Lost?” The introduction to that section stated, “All 15 of our columnists explain what the past four years have cost America, and what’s at stake in this election.”
Here is a sampling of what those columnists wrote about, as noted on the introductory page of the Review. Nicholas Kristoff: Trump has exploited and betrayed my friends. Jennifer Senior: Trump has normalized selfishness. Bret Stephens: Republicans have trashed their reputation. Frank Bruni: I don’t look at America in the same way. Roger Cohen: He severed America from the idea of America.
On the day after the election New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman opened his opinion piece , “We still do not know who is the winner of the presidential election. But we do know who is the loser: the United States of America.” Friedman went on to state, “We have just experienced four years of the most divisive and dishonest presidency in American history which attacked the twin pillars of our democracy — truth and trust.”
Friedman calls trust and truth pillars. We see them as the glue that holds democracy together. No matter what they are labeled, or which order they come in, truth and trust are integral to a functioning democracy.
This is why many have put a focus on those two factors at this pivotal time. The Pew Research Center (Center) is a definitive source of information on trust and truth.
In February, 2020, the Center published an article titled, “How Americans View Trust Facts and Democracy Today,” summarizing its extensive research in the area since 2018. Early on, it states:
The center’s work delves into the confluence of factors challenging the essential role that trust and facts play in a democratic society: Americans disintegrating trust in each other to make informed choices, their apprehension at the ability of others to effectively navigate misinformation, and the increasingly corrosive antagonism and distance across party lines, where even objective facts can be viewed through a prism of partisanship.
With regard to the truth, the Center notes, “Republicans and Democrats say they can’t agree on ‘basic facts’.” And, “A survey measuring five news related statements (ones that could be proved or disproved based on objective factual evidence) and five opinion statements found that only about one-quarter (26 percent) correctly identified five factual statements as facts and just 35 percent identified all five opinion statement correctly as opinions.”
In late October, 2020, former presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, IN, Pete Buttigieg released his book, Trust. In a phone call with the New York Times, Mayor Pete said, “There is unquestionably a crisis of trust and trustworthiness in our country — trust in our institutions, trust in each other, global trust in America as a whole.”
At the outset of January, 2020, in our first blog posting of the new year we named trust our word of the year for 2019. We explained, “We select trust not because of its presence in 2019 but because of its absence…In the year 2019, trust was absent on almost all fronts, including in the president; in government; in institutions; in the free press and the news media; in social media; and, most problematically, in each other.”
Much has been lost in this year which is drawing to a close. What has been found during that same time period?
The most important and overriding finding, because of this contentious election cycle and its outcomes, must be that America as a country and we as citizens are extremely divided.
There was a general understanding that there was a deep divide and considerable polarization in the U.S. The voting results put a magnifying glass on the extent of that separation.
They shed light on the fact that the differences between the sides — or the tribes, as some have called them — is a chasm and not a crevice. That chasm is urban-rural, racial, sexual, educational, generational, religious, and regional.
It is one thing to read survey studies and polling statistics. It is another to see the citizens’ voices expressed through the ballot box, singing very different tunes: God Bless the USA versus We Shall Overcome.
The revelation is that, while many of these voters may live in the same state, the Trump supporter and the Trump opponent are miles apart in terms of the state of their minds on Trump’s performance and the issues that matter most to them. That makes it exceptionally difficult for them to hear and understand each other’s perspectives and positions.
To illustrate this point, consider this description of Trump supporters provided by Roxanne Gay, contributing opinion writer, in the “liberal” New York Times, written on November 5 after the election,
The other United States is committed to defending white supremacy and patriarchy at all costs. Its citizens are the people who believe in Qanon conspiracy theories and take Mr. Trump’s misinformation as gospel. They see America as a country of scarcity, where there will never be enough of anything to go around, so it is every man and woman for themselves.
Compare that to this commentary on the motivation of Trump supporters provided by Rich Lowry, editor of the “conservative” National Review, on October 26, a little more than one week before the election:
Besides the occasional dissenting academic and brave business owner or ordinary citizen, Trump is, for better or worse, the foremost symbol of resistance to the overwhelming woke cultural tides that has swept along the media, academia, corporate America, Hollywood, professional sports, the big foundations, and almost everything in between
He’s the vessel for registering opposition to everything from the 1619 Project to social media’s attempted suppression of the Hunter Biden Story.
To put it in blunt terms, for many people, he’s the only middle finger available to brandish against the people who’ve assumed they have the whip hand in American culture.
There are the parameters of the chasm which must be bridged. This insight is depressing but not debilitating.
It defines the nature and extent of the problem. It indicates the level of heavy lifting that will be required to create a sense of shared unity among the citizens of this great nation.
While this division/polarization/chasm finding is distressing, there are other findings that this election has revealed that are inspiring. Three primary ones include: the level of civic participation; the hard work done to maintain and ensure election integrity; and the continuity of the American democracy.
Historically, America has not been known for high levels of voter turnout. The average turnout of the voting eligible population in the presidential election years from 1980 to 2016 was in the 50 percent range. Various studies have shown that America ranks near the bottom of democracies in terms of voter turnout.
There are a variety of reasons that American citizens don’t exercise their rights to vote: They include apathy, alienation, and a hodge-podge of state-run voting systems that can make participation difficult.
In this election, the citizens overcame all of those obstacles and turned out in close to record-breaking numbers. According to Professor Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, who runs the United States Election Project, 160 million people voted this year.
That is a turnout rate of 66.9% and the highest rate since 1900 when the rate was 73.7%. In that year, the voting eligible population pool was much smaller and did not include women or Asian Americans. This makes this year’s turnout, which beats the average turnout from 1980 through 2016 by approximately 10%, even more awesome.
What has also been awesome is the excellent job that those people who work in election offices in states and counties across this country do to ensure the integrity of the election process. They have persisted this year to do their duties in an objective and rigorous manner, as they have in the past, despite the fraudulent charges being levied by the President and a few of his conspiracy theory compatriots about election fraud.
Those poll workers efforts have been complemented by the volunteer efforts of poll watchers from both parties who collaborate rather than compete to ensure the election votes are cast properly and tallied correctly. Ed Crego’s wife, Sheila Smith, volunteered as a Democratic poll watcher in Sarasota, Florida for six days including election day and was uplifted by the civic spirit, dedication, and professionalism of all involved.
Few citizens understand or appreciate the honest and hard work that the poll workers do to make casting ballots easy. Sarasota Herald Tribune columnist Carrie Seidman served as a poll worker in Sarasota County’s precinct 233 on election day this year.
In her column the next day, she describes her work for the 12+ hour day in detail. It included greeting voters, checking IDs, overseeing tabulation machines and, because of COVID-19, wiping down “every stylus pen and surface with disinfectant after any contact from one of the nearly 2,000 voters we would process.”
Ms Seidman also describes her interactions with voters and her co-workers, concluding, “It’s easy to make assumptions, of course but ultimately I had no idea how any of these people marked their ballots. Nor did I know the allegiances of my fellow poll workers all of whom were kind, generous, and collaborative.”
The Democrats and Republicans working in America’s polling places protect and make democracy work fairly and fully for all. And because of their impartial and patriotic contributions, the 2020 results are unassailable, and American democracy will continue to move forward rather than being pushed into retrograde.
There was considerable worry before the election that a Trump victory and four more years in office would be deleterious for, and possibly even destroy, the American democracy. Numerous articles and op-ed pieces were devoted to the destructive potential of this election in the run-up to November 3.
For example, Brian Klaas, opinion contributor for the Washington Post, penned a piece titled, “To Save Democracy, Vote for Joe Biden.” The Editorial Board of the New York Times authored one titled, “You’re Not Just Voting for President. You’re Voting to Start Over.” And David Frum, former speech writer for George W. Bush, wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “Last Exit from Autocracy,” subtitled “America surved one Trump term. It wouldn’t survive a second.”
Joe Biden has now been declared the president-elect. But that does not mean the future of our democracy is guaranteed.
There is no question that President Trump has governed in an autocratic fashion and contributed to a deterioration of the American democracy. He is not the root cause of it, however. Truth be told, the decline of our democracy predates Trump’s presidency.
As we stated in a 2019 blog titled “The Enemy of the U.S. Democracy is Us”,
A strong and thriving democracy depends on numerous factors. The primary ones include civic knowledge, a belief in and commitment to a representative democracy, and trust in our governmental institutions and each other as citizens.
Sadly, the citizenry of the United State does not score well on any of those factors. In fact, our grades for all of them fall in the failing range.
Joe Biden’s election represents the opportunity for us as citizens to unite and to improve our report card. His election provides that because it brings the right leadership, plans, and agenda for the nation in these divisive and trying times.
One of the standard clichés in politics is that the person newly elected to office should be ready to govern on day one. Because of the former vice president’s significant knowledge and substantial prior experience, he will be ready to govern well before day one. There will be no learning curve.
The same can be said for the team that Biden will bring with him to run the American government. Vice President Biden’s campaign has had a transition team in place, working diligently to prepare for assuming the reins of government and restoring normalcy to government operations, since the summer.
On November 7, in a front page article, the New York Times reported that the transition team had accelerated its transition planning, and that “the first senior officials in a Biden White House could be named as early as next week.” The same article noted that “The Biden camp has prepared for multiple scenarios….in case Mr. Trump refused to concede and his administration would not participate in a Biden transition.”
In terms of plans, the Biden campaign is putting a comprehensive and robust set of plans in place to be implemented in priority order. At the top of that list, are COVID-19 and economic plans.
On Monday, November 9, President-elect Biden announced the members of a 13 person coronavirus task force/advisory board
convened to prepare a science-based approach to get covid under control. That task force will be co-chaired by former U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Adminstration commissioner Dr. David Kessler, and Marcella Nunez-Smith, associate dean of health equity research at the Yale School of Medicine.
Then there is Biden’s agenda for the nation. It is an agenda of unity.
It is not an agenda for plutocrats, populists, or progressives. It is an agenda for the people. It is not an agenda for the red states or blue states. It is an agenda for the United States. It is an agenda to bring people together.
Near the opening of his victory speech on November 7, President-elect Biden declared,
I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify.
Who doesn’t see red and blue states but a United States.
And who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.
For that is what America is about: the people.
Later in his speech, Biden spoke directly to Trump supporters, saying;
And, to those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight.
I’ve lost a couple of elections myself
But , now let’s give each other a chance.
It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric.
To lower the temperature.
To see each other again.
To listen to each other again.
To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.
Those are meaningful words and a powerful message. Coming from someone else, they might not be believable. But coming from Joe Biden as the messenger, they are. Because he is the message and this is the way he has lived his life of public service.
On December 23 1776, during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the time that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from their service; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Joe Biden is asking all Americans to join with him in the search for America during this time of crisis. We believe in America and Americans. We believe that concerned citizens of all stripes will hear his message and will enlist with him to discover common ground and the common good.
When they do what America has lost will be found. There will be truth and trust once again.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.