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A Difficult Healing

Kevin Stevens writes from Massachusetts: Well, it’s over. The most fraught US presidential election in history is behind us, and though the final, drawn-out, ballot-count (and recounts) have to be concluded (and the loser brings an array of unsupported legal challenges to the courts), Joe Biden will be the next American president, ending a long and tense contest marked by stark polarisation, threats of voter suppression and widespread anxiety and fear. The blue wave of Democratic dominance in the House and Senate failed to materialise, but the executive branch will see a change. Nearly four days after the polls closed, the Associated Press called Pennsylvania for Biden and Harris, tipping them over the 270 electoral votes required. Nevada followed shortly after. The Biden-Harris ticket has won the popular vote by four million votes. When all the ballots are accounted for, the margin of their victory will be significant.

A Biden win also means the end of four years of ratcheting intensity and national handwringing as a toxic leader systematically undermined or dismantled decades of progress toward America’s most pressing needs: an affordable and comprehensive healthcare system, a protected environment, humane immigration reform, and a foreign policy that treats allies as equals and adversaries as problems to be confronted firmly and fairly. Not to mention the health and welfare of citizens of a country now infected by more than a hundred thousand new Covid cases a day. Instead, the US will have a president who is civil and honest, a mandate from its electorate rejecting Trumpism, and an opportunity to face the nation’s multiple crises without the distraction and misgovernment of a leader who never met a lie he didn’t like. Also we now have the country’s first woman-vice-president, the daughter of immigrants, who is of African American and Asian heritage. The healing has begun.


Or has it?

Trump’s exit is gratifying. But November 3rd did not deliver the overall public statement Democrats had hoped for and the polls had led us to expect. Though we will have to wait for runoff races in Georgia before knowing the final count, the Senate appears poised to retain a tiny Republican majority. Democrats lost rather than gained seats in the House of Representatives. African Americans and Latinos gave a greater share of their votes to Trump than most expected. The turnout was an impressive display of voter commitment, but both parties benefited from the record numbers. The Democratic party has some work to do figuring out how to craft a platform that pursues a progressive agenda while reaching across the aisle. For the last forty years, since Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter, the Republican party has managed to convince a substantial number of working people and the left behind to vote against their own interests. The Democratic urban-rural coalition that powered the New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society from FDR to LBJ has fragmented, and not the least of Biden’s challenges will be how he manages the competing agendas of a very diverse Democratic party.

And among the people, the polarisation is as strong as ever. The predominant post-election emotion, at least here in Massachusetts where I live, is relief. People here are literally dancing in the streets, as they are all over the country. We are out of the wilderness. But the majority feeling is no doubt opposite in those states, such as Indiana and Florida and Texas, that awarded their electoral votes to Trump. I have to believe there are many Republicans, no matter how they voted, who are pleased to have this phase of madness behind them and look forward to redefining a credible opposition that, let’s face it, appeals to many millions of ordinary working people. But the contours of the national psychic landscape are undeniable. The division is still there. Much anxiety and fear will continue. Half the nation fears an active federal government. The other half fears the absence of an active federal government. Mutual suspicion has become a habit of mind, and it will not easily fade. The American Kulturkampf is deeply felt and often deeply nasty. And it is stoked by a failure of trust: in politics, in the media, in government institutions, and in each other.

The last four years saw Donald Trump turn from a symptom of (mostly) white male discontent into a core cause of a national illness. In the wake of his 2016 triumph, the bookstores were full of jeremiads warning of dictatorship. That has proven to be a false fear, not because Trump did not have the impulses of a dictator but because he was so poor at disguising them. His ego, even larger than his ambition, prevented him from exercising the kind of manipulation and subterfuge that a true authoritarian like Vladimir Putin practises so smoothly. Not that he didn’t cause damage. And not that there weren’t other reasons, political and cultural, for his failure to perpetuate his narrative. The US ‑ so culturally diverse, so decentralised ‑ has never been a likely candidate for a fascist power grab.

No, our crisis is a different one. Over seventy million Americans voted for Trump. That’s a frightening number, given his flaws. The Supreme Court, after three of his appointments, is solidly conservative. So the dangers that led to his election in 2016 remain: the very real threats of fragmentation and division, in which social and political constituencies ‑ from conservative state legislatures to progressive city governments, from street protest groups to armed militias ‑ occupy a self-defined moral high ground and, under pressure, can and do reject any authority but their own. In such an environment, national political discourse, cheapened by social media, becomes ragged and hostile, and analysis becomes less and less thoughtful. More and more we hear the language of civil conflict, and not just on the fringes. And not just words. In the first nine months of 2020, Americans bought seventeen million guns, more than for any single full year on record. The American schism is not a rhetorical exercise.

But don’t get me wrong. I am celebrating, delighted that Biden and Harris have won, but also unnerved. It’s going to take a while for the trauma of the last four years to allow for optimism. It’s also going to take real signs of progress. For me, progress means tolerance and civility without yielding commitment. It means respect for pluralism not as an experiment but as an essential feature of twenty-first-century democracy. And above all, it means reconciling the great American tradition of individualism with the realities of globalisation and the moral requirement that we care for each other no matter how much we disagree. So let’s celebrate, then hope that Joe has what it takes to pivot the nation. He’ll have a tough enough time balancing centrism and progressivism within his own party, never mind unifying a fragmented and frazzled country. But he is obliged to try. And he is game. Good luck to him.

7/11/2020