It is election day, and I am sitting in my parked car at 7pm EST while my daughter is at swim practice. Polls are just beginning to close but it is too early to guess at the outcome. Rather than compulsively check my phone every five minutes, I am reflecting on how I will approach the world when I wake up tomorrow morning.
I have strong political opinions, and often wonder whether the greatest threat to the United States is the side I disagree with or polarization itself. It’s a close tie. As a military officer, I am bound to respect lawful civilian oversight of the military, which in some ways makes things easier. Publicly raging against elected political leaders is inappropriate, and God knows we don’t need more of that anyway. The best thing I can do, as a military officer sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, is to be what an Air Force colleague of mine called a “radical moderate.” That does not mean being passive or drawing moral equivalencies, but it does mean starting with the equal dignity of every American and recognizing that the greatest challenge Americans face today is finding a way to continue living together.
That challenge will be especially salient come morning.
In the best case, half of the United States will weep with joy and relief. The other half of America will weep with grief and fear, or else burn with incandescent rage. The only thing that made the past year tolerable was hope—hope that somehow an election would dispel the shadow of fear we each live under. Tonight, for half of America, that hope will vanish for the next four years.
And that is the best case. Failing that, our nation may find itself in a kind of purgatory, waiting agonizing weeks or months for a contested result. In the worst case, we may lurch into a constitutional crisis that ratchets up our country’s stakes even higher.
Regardless of which outcome results, we will all wake up in the morning. We will pour our coffee and eat our breakfast. We will drag ourselves into work, and get the kids to school or in front of a Zoom session. We will somehow survive until the weekend. Thanksgiving will be around the corner, and then Christmas and other winter holidays. The world will keep turning.
The mess we’re in will still be here. COVID19 will still be ruining our lives. Our economy will still be in shambles. We will continue to have a crisis of trust in our political institutions, exacerbated by half of America’s rage at an election that failed to deliver. Innumerable crowds of peaceful protesters will continue to fill America’s streets, but rioters and right-wing paramilitaries will collide somewhere in the country, dominate headlines, and justify our seething contempt for the radical other. Health care will still be an unholy mess for damn near everybody, and we will continue to be gridlocked on major issues like abortion, immigration policy, and climate change. African Americans will continue to stagger beneath the crushing weight of racial inequity, while police officers will continue to feel like Vietnam Vets being spat on after homecoming. Facebook will remain a toxic brew, and we will daily contemplate unfriending people we love–or once loved. None of this change will tomorrow; in fact, tomorrow will probably be worse.
The sooner we can be honest about the world we are collectively facing, the sooner we can make serious choices about how we will live in it.
If tonight proves to be a night of celebration, by all means, go celebrate. Pop the champagne, cry tears of joy, and embrace your friends. If tonight proves to be a night of grief, then shed your tears, grieve, and call in sick tomorrow if you must. Do what you need to do. But once you come through the emotional turbulence, you will face the same question that we all will: how do we live for the next four years?
Some thoughts for the day after
I wrote recently about educating my children in communities on both sides of America’s partisan divide, which led a couple readers to comment on my optimism. I chuckled, because I am rarely taken for an optimist. If my writing is encouraging, it is because I write to encourage myself. I write to restore my faith, to find an intentional way to live for my values when so much about the world seems broken.
So with that as a preface, here are some half-baked thoughts to myself—and by extension, to my readers—about how to approach the next four years.
Remember that the American people look much better at the grassroots. If you read the news or spend any time on social media, our country looks like a dumpster fire. Those feeds are populated by combing the nation for the most egregious examples of outrageous behavior on either side, then fanning the flames of outrage. There is indeed much to be upset about, which we should not minimize. But if we actually go outside and spend time with Americans of all stripes, is is amazing how sensible and decent and similar everyone is, even those who are annoying or disagreeable or outrageous. We still have so much in common. If there is hope for this country, it is not to be found in one presidential candidate or the other but in ordinary American people.
Recognize that daily life goes on. One of my most striking observations in 2020, even amidst the chaos, is the degree to which ordinary life persists. This is partly due to the resilience of ordinary people, but also due to the strength of an open democratic society that has individual liberty, free markets, and so many interlocking institutions and organizations. National politics is gravely important, but it is only a piece of the story. We live most of our lives locally—except for the hours we spend dying inside while staring at glowing rectangles. I strongly believe that the future of America is in the local. Each of us must consider that means for ourselves.
Rediscover how to be magnanimous. The winning side will have every incentive to lord its victory over the other. Republicans could interpret their victory as a mandate to steamroll over their critics, while Democrats could use a victory to unleash vengeance for four years of hurt and rage. Contempt and vengeance have not served us well to date, and they will not serve us well going forward. I expect the national arena will remain a bloodbath, but every single one of us as citizens can choose to be magnanimous in our personal relations, whether online or in person. If our favored side wins, we will be in a privileged position to work towards reconciliation; we should be gracious in victory and extend a hand to our neighbor. If we are defeated, we also must be magnanimous, accepting that this messy, convoluted, infuriating democracy has spoken in ways we did not expect. Somewhere in that is a message we need to hear.
Take comfort in the knowledge that America includes a large exhausted majority. I worry deeply about polarization, but perhaps the country is not as divided as it seems. Despite our deeply felt political rivalries, most Americans are exhausted and want to overcome our toxic divisions. Despite the cloud hanging over our country this week, I have been heartened by an outpouring of calls among friends and family on social media to work together for the sake of our democracy. We will see if that goodwill can outlast the election results, but I am hopeful that it can. Bitter rivalries cannot last forever; even in the most terrible civil wars, exhaustion and devastation eventually overshadow fear and hatred.
Encourage both parties to tame their extreme wings. Our political system rewards extreme positions, and both mainstream media and social media ensure that extremism is broadcast loud and clear to the rival camp. It is human nature to minimize or explain away extremism on our side (“a few bad apples”) while amplifying extreme behavior on a rival’s side (“they’re all rotten”). The fact is, both ends of America’s political spectrum have exhibited dangerous and deplorable behavior. Even if we feel the extremism is skewed one way or the other, both sides need to address their extreme wings; otherwise, they will continue to fuel our fear and hatred and tear us apart.
Focus on repairing damaged political institutions. The most terrifying aspect of our present era is that our political institutions may no longer be adequate for negotiating our political differences. There are a number of reasons: our institutions have been under unprecedented assault from within the country, the civic culture that upheld those institutions no longer exists, and structural forces like social media and disinformation campaigns have strained those institutions to the breaking point. The infrastructure of democracy urgently needs an upgrade in the coming years.
Continue vigorously fighting out our very real differences in appropriate political channels. Our nation faces grave challenges. Our differences are real, important, and urgent. We absolutely must fight for what we believe is right. Certain positions, ideologies, and behaviors are deplorable and will face harsh judgment from history. I expect that my grandchildren will look at certain positions from our present day the way I look at Jim Crow-era laws and attitudes. We must keep up the fight, but that is precisely why we have political institutions: to structure our political bargaining in ways that ultimately strengthen our country instead of tearing it to pieces.
Fight with the same vitality for understanding, reconciliation, and healing. Entropy is the iron law of the universe. Left to themselves, human societies will tear themselves apart in animosity, fear, and hatred. Standing against these forces takes tremendous emotional and mental energy, expended through leadership, civic engagement, and ordinary dinner table conversations. This will not happen on its own; we must deliberately work for it. Even as we battle out our contentious political issues, we must keep human dignity front and center and hold each other’s humanity. We must proactively fight to maintain personal relationships across party lines.
It is almost 10:00pm Eastern right now, and I beat the polls; I am finishing this piece with no idea what tomorrow will look like.
I’m home now, sitting on the couch with my dog curled against my side. My wife and three children are huddled around another computer, trying to divine the future from the bread crumbs of data trickling in. In a few minutes, I will crack a beer and relax.
I paused from writing in order to have a substantial conversation with my children about their anxieties, about the conflicting hopes and fears of their friends in California and Alabama, about how they will handle the range of possible outcomes when they go to school tomorrow. I did my best to tell them what I wrote here.
I should be anxious, but I feel an unexpected sense of peace. Voting this morning was the most uplifting experience I have had in a long time; my wife and I stood in the cold morning sunlight, shuffling forward in a socially distanced line that wrapped all the way around the church. I had never seen so many people out voting. Cars were parked anywhere they could squeeze in. The voters were as diverse as America itself: black, white, poor, rich, urban and sophisticated, barely able to speak English, young and hurried, shuffling along bent over canes and walkers. This beautiful line held Republicans and Democrats, people whose hopes and fears were diametrically opposed and yet somehow were all out here in the bright sunlight, courteous, polite, patient.
It is a heavy night, and tomorrow will be a heavy day. The Founding Fathers never claimed democracy would be easy. If nothing else, for all our bitter divisions, we are united in one thing: we are all part of this hard, messy, contentious dance called democracy. We will not take “no” for an answer, and when the world knocks us down, we will organize and mobilize and keep fighting for what we think is right. Somehow, out of all that creative energy, the wheels of American history turn.
We are Americans, and we believe deep in our bones that we can determine our future. We will keep doing democracy. We will not stop. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not ever.