Voters wait in line at an early voting center in Henrico County on Oct. 20, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
The electric blue arc from an exploding transformer nearby lit up the blustery, gray gloom of Hurricane Zeta’s remnants as it barreled across Virginia Thursday, just hours after it battered poor ol’ whupped-down Louisiana. It was the fifth named storm this year to ravage Cajun country and, landfalling at the end of October, was the latest ever to directly hit New Orleans.
Zeta, the 27th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season — one shy of the 2005 record of 28 — is the most recent benchmark for misery brought to us by the year 2020, easily the most freakish and depressing of my more than threescore years.
In the past 10 months, Americans have endured a global pandemic with more than 1 million dead and counting, a related worldwide economic plunge and Great Depression-like unemployment, record deadly wildfires and a murder hornet invasion along the Pacific Coast, a presidential impeachment, a spate of police killings of unarmed Black people and, consequently, the most violent social unrest since the 1960s.
Against this hellscape, the nastiest, most expensive and divisive presidential election of our lifetimes played out. By Thursday, about 70 million ballots were already cast nationally, either through early in-person voting or by mail. That crushes the mark of 58 million early votes cast in the 2016 election and represents more than half of that election’s total turnout of 136 million. In Virginia, 2.3 million people had either voted early or requested absentee ballots by mail as of Wednesday, quadrupling the state’s 2016 absentee vote total.
Tomorrow — mercifully — this campaign dies, though a winner might not be known for days. If the race is close, the unsettling drama of litigation over the outcome could add weeks of woe, civil strife and, possibly, violence.
Had someone sat you down on New Year’s Day and laid out such a script for the year ahead, would you have believed it?
Yet, looking back at it now, it would have been worth reconsidering because a story this bizarre would never work as fiction, which requires an element of believability.
We know enough now to expect more bad news in the final two months of 2020. Aside from post-election contretemps, epidemiologists forecast that the shorter days and colder weather ahead will bring a horrifying leap in COVID-19 cases as socially distanced outdoor gatherings are forced indoors. They point to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic when an autumnal resurgence of the virus dwarfed its springtime death toll. In anticipation, Wall Street is showing signs of its bearish ways from last spring when markets seemed to be skydiving without parachutes. By the end of June, the United States had seen one-third of its gross domestic product evaporate, though some of it was recouped in a strong third quarter.
As for the election, we can only hope it’s resolved (peacefully) by noon on Jan. 20, 2021, the instant the Constitution directs that a new presidential term begins.
That gives us some time for introspection on how things spun sideways and how (or whether) we can winch our politics out of the ditch. But it’s bigger than politics. It’s about who we are as a people.
The year 2001 brought us unimaginable heartbreak, too, but it was condensed into a single morning – September 11. After the rage and the sorrow, Americans found themselves galvanized as they had not been since Dec. 7, 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Both were transcendent events that shocked Americans into realizing anew that more unites us than divides us. Democrats rallied to the support of a Republican president who stood beside New York firefighters amid the smoldering ruins of Manhattan’s twin towers, and promised righteous retribution to those who orchestrated the attack. Decades earlier, Republicans had cheered a Democratic president who launched the United States into World War II to avenge “a date that will live in infamy.” Both times, Americans cried and prayed together and found purpose behind a flag that reminded them they were one nation under God and indivisible.
It’s folly to imagine an America in such harmony perpetually. Dissent is essential and even healthy, as are the institutions that help us resolve our differences peacefully — the courts, our Congress and legislatures, the 50 separate state election systems, our schools, law enforcement, a free and responsible press and the right of people to peaceably assemble in protest.
This year has seen stepped-up attacks on each of these, much of it exacerbated for political gain, at the same time that worsening tribalism chilled our ability to even recognize the problem much less collaboratively fix it. Siloed as we were for weeks on end in our homes during the lockdown with social media as our common forum, confrontation too often supplanted conversation. Scientific fact has been dismissed as nothing more than an alternative opinion.
And when we did venture out, the common courtesy of wearing a face covering for one’s own health and that of others was sometimes seen as a provocation worthy of a fistfight. Empathy is viewed as a weakness. Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves is little more than Sunday morning rhetoric.
If the great redeeming institutions of our republic seem to be failing us, it’s because they are no better than the people they serve. And we’re a damn sight better than we’ve been acting lately.
Once this wakeful nightmare of an election year is behind us, perhaps we commit to work on that. Maybe we spend less time trolling someone on Facebook (yes, I am guilty) and more time understanding them. How about we just put on a mask as we enter a supermarket instead of trying to pick a fight with a high school kid assigned to nicely ask customers to honor the store’s mask policy. Maybe, rather than assume the worst about someone wearing a MAGA cap, consider that this might be a first responder who runs toward mayhem as we flee from it. Rather than suppose someone wearing a Biden-Harris T-shirt to be a soulless socialist, consider that she might be a teacher who uses her own meager pay to augment classroom materials for a poor school and just worked an extra unpaid hour to tutor a child who’s struggling in algebra.
There’s more good to us than this election year would have us believe. We’re not just red or blue, left or right, all good or “deplorable.” We’re Americans … and together we’re America – with a proven capacity to grow, to care for one another and to achieve mighty things when we work together.
The imperative of tamping down our anger is up to us, not to fate. Before us stands the blessing of time – time to breathe, to de-escalate, to think better of ourselves and our neighbors, and to stand together against malignant forces at home and abroad who prosper from a discordant America. We face not just the opportunity but the obligation to use this time to heal our body politic.
Failure is assured only if we never try.
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