Election 2020: Americans Reject ‘Dispiriting Narrative’

By Neil Earle

Will Friedman’s insightful and encouraging article in the November 1, 2020 Commercial Appeal can certainly stand some amplification.

Titled “Why Americans are more united than it appears,” Friedman, president of Public Agenda which sponsors Hidden Common Ground 2020, made an eloquent case for the broad consensus in the country around such priorities as economic opportunity with fairness, national security, infrastructure, occupational retraining, affordable child care and incentives to keep jobs in the country. Somehow, we’ve always known this but the message was hard to hear amid the din of what Friedman called “news pundits, national politicians, and malicious foreign actors.”

Well said, Mr. Friedman. One of the immediate aftermaths of November 3, 2020 was the overdue litany of corrections against polling exhaustion and a media elite notoriously addicted to “extreme voices” as Friedman indicated. American audiences by now are savvy to the media screeds of overwhelming negativism pivoted around violent or “odd” visuals. “If it bleeds it leads.” As far back as the 1980s, writer-critic Neil Postman talked about TV news as being ready to succumb to the lure of entertainment in a book perceptively titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

As a resident alien and long-time student of American culture it always amazes me with what commonality the American electorate determines to live by the dictates of their founding documents. For decades I would point out to “America-doubters” how startling in history to see the keys to the most frightening weapons in history turned over calmly after a tumultuous election cycle. It’s sort of like the American people returning to “home truths” every four years, yet we have got so used to it.

Historian Paul Johnson was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, December 2006.

Which is to say that out of chaos some order eventually comes. That is encouraging whether you subscribe to evolution or Genesis One. Just when pundits were cluck-clucking at the health of American republican democracy, November 3, 2020 saw the biggest turnout for voting in the nation’s history – 150,000,000 cast ballots and in the midst of a dangerous pandemic! It seems that the “can-do” American spirit many foreigners tagged this continent-sized republic in World War II was alive and well. It also showed how apathy, resignation or negativism were not the reigning motifs across the country. I saw it in the rigged vendor selling caramel corn at the Bartlett Farmer’s Market or the calm cool suburban housewife who cast her vote via the Internet and didn’t tell a soul. “I want to have my say!”

As a Community College teacher in Southern California, I would begin the semester by writing on the board a fill-in-the blanks quote from British historian Paul Johnson who happened to admire the United States. It read: “The Americans are above all things a ------ ------ people. They will not give up.”

I’d ask the class what they thought the missing words were. After discussion I’d write them in – “The Americans are above all things a problem-solving people. They will not give up.” This hopeful thesis statement was the jumping-off spot to cover such death-defying cries as a revolution the colonists, militarily, should never have won; a sustained commitment to eradicate the scourge of slavery and a gung-ho effort to span and develop a continent, and pivot to act as the balance for victory in two world wars and just as quickly turn to face a costly Cold War. With that legacy there may yet be enough energy for these unusually hopeful people – the Americans – to tackle some of the monstrously complicated issues of our time. Leadership matters but in the end it is the people themselves in a republic who set the agenda and create the policies that drive us forward to what Winston Churchill called the “broad sunlit uplands,” with great stress on broad, meaning inclusiveness.

“They will not give up.” Apathy and despair and non-involvement has not had the final word, even in 2020 and even when facing a poisonous plague. Let’s hope this mantra still prevails.