A lot of Americans are apprehensive and fearful right now. They worry that the toxic combination of a deadly and still out-of-control pandemic and a closely contested national election offering such widely divergent visions of the nation’s future could lead to spiraling unrest and perhaps even armed violence.
These are not totally illegitimate concerns. As made clear by events of the past weekend (like the unprovoked law enforcement attack on peaceful marchers in Alamance County and the outrageous blockade of a Biden campaign bus by Trump supporters in Texas), America is coping with experiences that haven’t been a part of the national political scene in recent decades.
Add to this the demise of traditional news media that once assured the majority of the population was operating with the same basic facts, plus the power of various social media platforms to spread lies and absurd and inflammatory conspiracy theories, and there’s no doubt that the nation faces an extremely difficult moment.
And still, as a few minutes of sober reflection reminds us, the chances that we have arrived at a truly apocalyptic point in history are very, very low. Bad as the situation seems now, chances remain good that we will weather this storm and maybe even emerge the better for it.
Here, therefore are five reminders to help keep you sane during the election and its aftermath.
1 – The situation is lousy, but we’ve overcome worse.
It’s easy when you’re in the middle of bad times to feel like they’ve never been worse and, of course, for most of those who are suffering right now – the families of the 230,000-plus people who have died from COVID-19, the millions struggling to stay housed and put food on the table – they haven’t.
As a nation, however, the United States has endured and overcome much more dire crises.
When Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933 during the deepest depths of the Great Depression, fully a quarter of the American workforce was unemployed. And this was at a time in which the nation had no meaningful public social safety net.
The massive, post World War I influenza pandemic claimed the lives of 675,000 Americans at a time when the national population was just over 100 million. That would be the equivalent of more than 2 million deaths today.
2 – We’ve experienced much more troubling threats of violence.
The extremists threatening violence right now – most of them on the far right – can be a frightening crowd at times, but most are merely noisy blowhards who have no real intention of (or capacity for) launching widespread violence – much less civil war.
This stands in sharp contrast to some bygone eras in which the U.S. actually endured real and significant spates of political violence – political assassinations, bombings, widespread attacks by white supremacist mobs, pitched battles in the streets – carried out by truly desperate people who didn’t bother to play dress up for social media videos.
And, of course, during the Civil War, nearly 2.5% of the nation’s population – 750,000-plus out of a total population of 31 million – was killed. That’s the equivalent of roughly 7.5 million people dying today. This isn’t going to be repeated.
3 – Most Americans long for peace and a return to normalcy.
Polls continue to indicate that, regardless of where they stand on the election, the overwhelming majority of Americans want a return to safety, peace and prosperity. Unlike many others, the U.S. is not a country with a long tradition of defaulting to factional conflict. With the obvious and horrific exception of its violent, one-way repression of enslaved Black people and their descendants, sectarian violence is not something Americans are very practiced or good at.
Indeed, even as they contemplate their deep political differences and the challenges posed by the pandemic, most Americans of all colors, ethnic and religious backgrounds and political persuasions will almost assuredly be preparing for the holiday season in just a little over three weeks – not marching to the barricades.
4 – We have the capacity to tackle the crises that confront us.
The crises we face right now – the global environmental emergency, the pandemic, spiraling national and global inequality – are undoubtedly massive and dire. But it’s also quite clear that we have the brain power and resources to address and even solve them.
Despite some missteps, there is every reason to believe that COVID-19 vaccine will be available in the foreseeable future. What’s more, the all-hands-on-deck approach that the world has brought to the challenge can serve as an important, small-scale rehearsal for responding to the climate crisis and other environmental emergencies.
Indeed, for each of the above examples, one can make a strong argument that it’s really just a matter of marshaling societal will and resources. And while the U.S. faces enormous fiscal policy challenges, it’s also true that total personal income in the United States in 2019 was on the order of $18.6 trillion. Indeed, the nation could raise $450 billion merely through the application of a one-time emergency tax on the gains the nation’s billionaires have reaped in just the last seven months.
5 – Record voter turnout shows people want to make things work.
The bottom line: It’s for all the above reasons – at least in part – that the U.S. is shattering voter turnout percentages this year that go back more than a century.
Americans may be a divided and somewhat dispirited bunch right now, but most of us haven’t given up hope for the future. Whatever the outcome of the 2020 elections, we would all do well to keep this fact in mind.
This column originally appeared in our sister publication North Carolina Policy Watch.