I cast my first ballot in 1980. My polling place was the lobby of the old folks’ home and I vividly remember slipping behind a curtain, running my hands over the levers, making a choice with consequence. In my small Pennsylvania hometown, we wanted to be better off. Usurious mortgage interest rates, outrageously priced, rationed gasoline, and a succession of factory shut downs were killing us. We were ready for Morning in America.
Thirty-six years and nine presidential elections later, it is morning and we are a sadly and profoundly a divided America anxiously awaiting the outcome of the most consequential election of our lives.
At this moment, tens of millions of Americans are voting for their better tomorrow. A tomorrow that for nearly half of those voters is unfathomable to the other half. In about 12 hours, we should know which vision prevails. And then, the real work begins.
If you think these past 18 months of presidential politicking has been brutal, you may only be slightly prepared for the next four years. No matter how this election turns, America is in a world of hurt. Americans are in a world of hurt. It is a hurt that makes far-left and far-right candidates attractive. These political wrecking balls will break an establishment that doesn’t’ work for those who are in pain. Like taking a baseball bat to the hood of a car, sometimes it just feels so good to take out your frustration.
But, America isn’t a beater of a car or even an establishment. It’s a covenant among its citizens to work together toward a future that gives everyone a chance to do a little better. We’ve lost sight of that, not just in this election cycle, but for so many election cycles of the past 50 years. And tomorrow, a significant portion of the electorate is going to wake up angry and disappointed no matter how this thing turns out.
No matter which was this turns, though, every American has a responsibility tomorrow morning. It looks something like this.
Accept It. Democracy is pretty simple at its core: we vote, we count the votes, someone wins. The prize is the awesome responsibility to take the wheel of a pretty damaged and dangerous bus and drive it as best you can for four years without the wheels coming off. We are all passengers on that bus. It would serve us well to help the driver avoid the cliffs. That, and you don’t get to be self-righteous about a candidate who doesn’t accept the outcome of the vote if you, yourself, dismiss the results. We’ve seen two generations of presidential leadership blocked by congressional and public forces that didn’t like, if not outright reject, the outcome of an election, and we are not the better country for it.
Don’t gloat. Politics is not a sport. You don’t get to lord your championship ring over your brother-in-law who roots for the other team. It only leads to unpleasant arguments over Thanksgiving dinner, and you know just how long it’s been since Uncle Billy has refused to visit over a slight passed around the table more quickly than the cranberries. Healing this country’s divide is a good thing and that won’t happen if you taunt a whole lot of people, telling them that they are losers.
Get busy. We consume national politics like it’s a bag of Cheetos and a fizzy soda pop. We eat it up, then complain that we’re fat. We have lost the cause-effect connection between our vote and our elected leaders. We complain that politicians do nothing, or the wrong thing, while we sit idly by waiting until the next election, when – inexplicably – we eat more Cheetos and vote for the some version of the do-nothing, wrong-doing politicians we griped about last time. We must become as active and involved between elections as we are during them. We treat government at every level as if it is “them,” forgetting that it really is ”us.” Our alternately passive-aggressive and laissez-faire approach to politics strips many of us of our power to influence government where it matters most: in the day-to-day, down-and-dirty work of directing our communities and country. It’s time to put down the Cheetos, and get to work. Or, to mix metaphors, if you think we need to “drain the swamp,” you’re going to have to start with yourself.
Listen, Really Listen We have become polarized not because we are so different from one another, but because we fail to listen, really listen, to one another, a point made so clearly by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book Strangers In Their Own Land. Instead, we plunge into the echo chamber of our own beliefs, insuring that we hear only that which reinforces our present perspective. Rather than seeking to understand, we set out to vilify, those who think differently from us. We must get out of our way. We have to drop the filters that protect us from greater insight. We have to stop treating others as, well, other and begin thinking of them as part of a greater us. Country before party. Humanity before country.
Start with Why Marked by 140-character insults and sotto voce barbs, the campaign rhetoric and our own angst and anger have given cover to the voices of our hearts, the vulnerable truth that we are frightened, hungry, worried, insecure, intimidated, unsure. Better to bellow campaign slogans, click our tongues at our neighbor’s yard signs, key a car sporting an opposing bumper sticker than to stop to consider what’s going on in the life of that person. We are so consumed with the winner-take-all competition that we’ve dehumanized the opposition. We are no longer fellow citizens of a great and powerful nation; we’ve become combatants in a no-win cultural, social, and political war. There’s no easy way to walk this back, but the first step starts with why? We must cultivate a new spirit of empathy if we have any chance in hell of healing our country and getting on with the business of leading better lives. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to on another. We owe it to America.
In just a few hours, we will know who our next president will be. Then, and no matter what the outcome, the real work of this campaign will begin.