November 1, 2020
I have been mulling a story about the 2020 election for months. Like many voters on both sides, I feel that it may be a watershed moment for the country. If my Grandchildren inherit my love of history, they will be interested in 2020; I feel compelled to leave some written thoughts. I also feel a pressure to write it before the vote, so I don’t appear to be crowing or a sore loser,
whichever way the vote goes.
That puts a deadline on this story, something which tends to cramp my writing. So be forewarned, I reserve the right to edit this story, not to change its story line, but with the hard earned knowledge that my stories get better and easier to understand
after I let them mellow a bit and find better ways to say what I intended to say.
The resulting story - an essay really - is both longer than it could have been and shorter than it should have been.
I hope my Grandchildren will make their way through all of it.
Anyone else feeling a bit exhausted by the election?
There have been contentious elections in American history before. The acrimony, even divisiveness of the 2020 election is not new. It may be uncomfortable at times, but that’s how Democracy works, it is part of what makes America special; many people in the world would love to be able to express themselves as Americans do without fear of being carted off to jail.
But there is an underlying unease - from both sides – that this 2020 election could be a watershed moment in American history - a major transition those on the sharp end of the stick will have to live with. Sometimes that doesn’t go well.
The Declaration of Independence has such an aura that it seems the natural beginning of America. But at the time, a lot of people didn’t think it was such a great idea. About a third of the 2.5 million non-native people living in the colonies were loyalists, quite happy to be subjects of King George III, about a third OK with that idea with a few modifications and probably less than a third who craved outright independence.
The United States were anything but united in the decision. John Hancock, as President of the Second Continental Congress, rued as he signed the Declaration with a flourish so King George wouldn’t have to put on his spectacles to read it, “We must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must hang together.” He wasn’t referring to hanging out at the local tavern.
Seven long years of a war of attrition just about proved the doubters right. It took some luck, several bad decisions by the British, George Washington’s hard earned experience and a big assist from the French (the French had more men, not to mention their fleet, at Yorktown than the Continental Army) to pull it off.
Ultimately the Declaration of Independence turned into America’s first watershed moment. The loyalists largely moved to Canada or back to England and the country was on its way. But it could have ended just as easily with numerous signers of the Declaration swinging in the breeze.
After a war to free itself from being governed from across the ocean, the last thing that any state wanted was to be corralled by a central government. That attitude was embedded in the Articles of Confederation that governed the (sort of) United States from 1781 to 1789. Governing proved a challenge. That Congress often lacked a quorum; members simply didn’t show up. State legislatures were where the action was.
The country was rescued by the Constitutional Convention. What the Founding Fathers achieved is truly amazing, but they had to do it in total secrecy (doors and windows closed during the Philadelphia summer heat in those wigs and suits with no air conditioning) because they knew that if word of their total government redo got out there’d be chaos in the streets of every state capitol.
The Constitution barely squeaked through many states’ vote, mostly attributed to the Founding Fathers’ deft handling of the ratification process. It was anything but unanimous. It wouldn’t be the last time that a significant portion of the country questioned the idea of a stronger federal government.
Lincoln’s election in 1860 started the biggest watershed moment in U.S. history. It led to the Civil War and eventually to the South having to adjust to life without slavery. That didn’t go very well, but the alternative would have been at least two different countries with the issue of slavery postponed, not eliminated. North America, and likely the world, would look much different today and there’d probably be little talk of American greatness.
Franklin Roosevelt, much like Abraham Lincoln, was a President you either loved or hated. No President totally escapes stirring up some emotion – even George Washington stirred up a hornet’s nest when he mounted his horse to lead the army one last time to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
Roosevelt ushered in the bigger government and social liberalism which is at the core of the 2020 elections – even if that core issue sometimes gets lost in the translation or drowned by social media. It is part of the continuing, and necessary, debate started by the Constitutional Convention about the role of the federal government. The country always benefits from a debate of new ideas. Debates are part of Democracy.
In the relative prosperity we enjoy today, it is easy to forget the crisis facing the country at the beginning of the Great Depression. From Hooverville to the rise of the American Communist Party to the Dust Bowl, people were desperate for answers. Those at the top, after being thinned a bit by those who jumped to their death during the 1929 Stock Market Crash, were equally determined to hold onto the system that got them there.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is a masterpiece of psychology. But it took more than words to lead the country out of the Great Depression. Some parts of the New Deal have become part of our social fabric (social security, unemployment insurance). Some became folklore (the CCC, TVA and WPA). Some didn’t work at all, and none of them achieved their goal of pulling the country out of the Depression.
That took the country’s herculean effort during World War II, which also pushed a reluctant nation into a world leadership role. But Roosevelt’s New Deal gave America the precious gift of hope – and held the country together at a time when that was not a given.
Is the 2020 election another watershed moment in American history? That’s a lot easier to determine in hindsight. But many on both sides of the election think it is. Will it be as momentous as the Constitutional Convention, Civil War or Great Depression? Probably not, but reaction to the election results may push it in that direction.
There is a palpable sense of apprehension about potential fraud or even violence. Joe Biden talks of the hash Donald Trump has made of things. Donald Trump warns of the chaos to come under the ‘radical left’ rule of Democrats.
Trump has indeed made a hash of some things. Most, if not all, Presidents wish they could have some mulligans, though few will admit that publicly.
But most voters credit Trump with a good job on the economy – though at a significant increase of the federal deficit through his tax cut, well before the stimulus packages for Covid (a much more justifiable use of deficit spending) made that even worse. But Trump has no monopoly on government living beyond its means. It disgusts me that both parties are perfectly happy to make our Grandchildren pay for their excesses.
And his unconventional approach to diplomacy (which probably deserves another whole essay) have opened both foreign and domestic eyes even if it hasn’t produced the results Trump likes to claim. Some of those tools will unquestionably make their way into the tool bag of future Presidents.
Trump’s trying to pin the ‘radical left’ label on Biden is both dubious, unless he wants to embrace the term ‘radical right’ and laughable, except that many of his supporters believe it. The more centralist Biden defeated the more left wing of the Democratic party as represented by Bernie Sanders and others in the primary. He’s listening to them - as he should because they have some good ideas that deserve be aired, just as Trump has done some good things he should be credited with.
As to violence and his law and order message, Trump is only underscoring his own hypocrisy unless he’s also willing to confront the antics of the far right. Planning the kidnapping of a Governor is no more acceptable than looting.
You’d think most people would recognize the campaign hyperbole. But after 9 months of Covid 19, people are more than usual primed for simplistic sound bites to very difficult issues.
Adding to the apprehension is a renewed reckoning with racial injustice triggered by the police murder of George Floyd. When I was very young, my Mom made a point to tell me that if I was ever lost or in trouble to look for the nearest policeman. That was in the day when policemen walked a beat and could be counted on to know the local area pretty well.
Many white people now appreciate that Black mothers had a very different conversation with their children. Still, it is hard for many whites to accept that rules written by one segment of the population often benefit that segment, whether intended or not. And naturally, there will be some portion of that white population that is happy, even forceful, to maintain that advantage.
The country is also dealing with a pandemic. It will be difficult for any future generation to comprehend how Covid 19 turned 2020 upside down. That’s true of any pandemic. Who can fully comprehend that the Bubonic plague killed up to 60% of the European population in the 14th century or that American generals, when faced with an outbreak of the Spanish flu in World War I training camps decided to send the troops to Europe anyway – they might as well die fighting.
No President would have earned an A on their report card for handling the pandemic, but Trump's minimizing it undoubtedly made it worse by providing an excuse and example for those unwilling to take basic preventative steps.
When automobiles became widespread in the early 20th century, it didn’t take long to realize that stop signs, and eventually stop lights, were good things. Freedom is wonderful but common sense is just as important. Nobody likes to wear a mask, but my Grandchildren will probably be dumbfounded by the number of people in 2020 unwilling to take this most effective step to protect friends and family and ultimately, the economy and our way of life.
If nothing else, Trump's downplaying Covid 19, "not wanting to cause panic" showed a lack of faith in American perseverance. Winston Churchill didn’t promise a bed of roses to buck up the British people for what was coming. He promised “blood, sweat and tears”.
Covid 19 has been a shock to generations that have grown soft with a sense of privilege. There’s been some scary moments, several wars that should not have been fought, even the first war that the United States lost. But no post World War II generation has been asked to make the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation or forced to live through anything like the Great Depression or Dust Bowl. Sacrifice is not a part of our culture. We're beginning to pay for that, though not as much as our Grandchildren will pay.
Environmental issues have been pushed aside somewhat by the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic, but it’s rapidly becoming the most important issue to the youngest generation, as it should and must. The feeling that the world is running out of time to deal with global warming is not as far fetched as it seemed only 5-10 years ago.
The unprecedented wildfires over the entire West Coast, even in my home state of Colorado and the sheer number of hurricanes lashing the Gulf Coast in 2020 have made it obvious that climate change must soon be the top priority of the country, indeed the world – at least to those not frozen in place by fear of change.
Smoke from the East Troublesome Fire at sunset on October 22, 2020 with Keystone Ski Resort in the foreground. About 45 miles away, taken from the ridgeline of Mt. Baldy not far from the spot I took the Blue River Valley picture on the Personal Stories page.
But there is something even more important at stake in this election.
It’s counter intuitive to think that Democracy can be forced on people. Some of our misguided efforts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan bear that out. Democracy is a fragile concept easily corrupted – history is full of examples from Caesar to Hitler. It requires a minimum level of decency, trust and compromise to work - which again, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan make clear.
No President is a saint. Lying, or at least not telling the whole truth is part of the unofficial job description. Womanizing was usually overlooked, at least until Bill Clinton came along. Though we’ve gotten rid of the worst of it, the spoils system that Andrew Jackson started still exists. Only Presidents who have nothing to hide are totally honest about their health. Most Presidents have a contentious relationship with the press, though calling everything you don't like "fake" takes it to a new level.
The Emolument Clause is in the Constitution – the founding fathers readily recognized the dangers of foreign gifts - but candidates' financial disclosure wasn’t a thing until 1978 and even now, there’s no requirement to disclose tax returns. Many Presidents prefer like-minded advisors around them, though the really smart, self-confident ones like Lincoln actually put rivals in their Cabinets because they were competent – and he could keep an eye on them. Firing competent advisors usually gets you second tier ones.
So Donald Trump’s behavior is not unique, even if it's sometimes hard to stomach the misogyny, lying and hypocrisy.
What is unique about Donald Trump is the extent that he has weaponized Presidential power and prestige for his own use, frequently using it to belittle, sideline or get rid of enemies - seemingly in his mind anyone who questions or disagrees with him. He takes opposing views as insults instead of potential insights for improvement. He views oversight and the separation of power as a curse rather than a safeguard.
Seeding doubt about the validity of the election and refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power is a slap in the face of the Founding Fathers that has eroded the decency, trust and compromise necessary for Democracy to function. It is a step onto the very slippery road leading to a very different form of government. His bombast makes that obvious to his critics, but hides it from his supporters, maybe even from him. History will eventually sort it out. I doubt it will be kind to Donald Trump.
The Founding Fathers purposely designed our government to be slow moving, even slow-witted at times. It was more important to them to get it right than to get it fast. They made amendments possible but not easy. It often seems that the federal government is just bumbling along, not even trying to keep up with public opinion. If you find that frustrating, it helps to remember that it was designed in the horse and buggy era. Still, the Constitution has served us well over the last 250 years, though it's well past time for some new amendments - another potential essay.
America is not perfect – far from it. But it’s worth keeping, along with the Democracy that makes it work. As the saying goes, Democracy is maybe the worst form of government – until you look at the alternatives.
The best gift I can imagine for my Grandchildren is to elect a President who understands how Democracy works. It would be a plus if he has the mandate and ability of the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to face down the fear of change.