Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
— Emily Dickinson
As I write this, it is a few minutes past two o’clock on the afternoon of November 8, 2016 — a date that, to coin a phrase, will live in infamy, one way or another. Sometime within the next 10 to 12 hours, the American people will (presumably) know the identity of the 45th president of the United States, the person who will (presumably) lead our nation into a future that, from every vantage point with which I am even remotely familiar, is murky at best.
My day started early. Early enough, I thought, that I could slip in and out of my polling place, the Jefferson County Courthouse, with a minimum of difficulty and make it to a morning coffee meeting on time. Instead I found a line that reached out the lobby door that fronts Linn Park and snaked down the sidewalk, past the entrance of the Linn-Henley Research Library next door. I took the coward’s way out and decided to try again late in the day, rationalizing that I’ll be able to take my kids with me, hopefully to reinforce the importance of adding one’s own modest noise to the clamor of democracy.
Walking past the throng awaiting entry to the courthouse, I thought back to watching my parents (my mom and stepdad) standing in line to vote back in 1968. The culminating weeks of that campaign coincided with my entry into the first grade at Haleyville Elementary School, and gave me my first real awareness of presidential politics. In that election, as on every occasion since when Americans have trekked to the polls to choose their leader, partisans on all sides portrayed its outcome as the moment when the fate of the American republic would be set in stone. Unless my candidate wins, goes the operative sentiment, America is doomed.
Well, so far, everyone has been wrong. America is still here — as far as I can tell anyway, though there’s a case to be made that we’ve already met our doom somewhere along the way and just haven’t figured it out yet. In which case, it really doesn’t matter who wins.
And yet, of course, it does. It always does, even if the victory of one candidate over the other has yet to plunge us full-bore into the throes of Armageddon. And maybe it’s just the old quadrennial angst rearing its head yet again, bringing on that familiar feeling, like the onset of some debilitating, soul-deep, ultimately fatal malady or infirmity: If [insert the Evil One of your choice] is elected, I’m moving to Canada, because this country is over, as surely and truly dead as Augustus Caesar.
Still, this particular election, the one that will end (presumably) when either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump attains the 270 electoral votes that is the minimum necessary to become the president-elect, has made a particularly strong case for the being the Election That Ends All Elections. The hardness of the battle lines, the harshness of the rhetoric, the genuine heavy-heartedness with which, thanks to the dubious miracle of social media, I have witnessed people call at least a temporary end to friendships that previously had endured for decades of undoubted and unavoidable ups and downs.
Perhaps it’s just the fact that we no longer have to express our political disagreements face-to-face, and the ease with which it thereby is possible to tell another human being to go to hell — or to suggest that that is where they’re headed, simply because they’re supporting a different candidate than you. I’m not arguing against having strong political convictions, but I am saying that level of intensity and the rawness of the nerves that have been exposed by this ugly and divisive campaign — in this I also include the aforementioned party primaries — has been ramped up in ways that are unprecedented in my experience.
As a result, the fault lines of division have been fully exposed, and the sins of our civic neglect — of the responsibilities of citizenship that require some intellectual and behavioral heavy lifting — have put us in a precarious position relative to (depending on whom your ear is attuned to) either making the country great again, maintaining its greatness, or keeping ourselves resolutely on the path of making it great at long last by ensuring that its still-extant promise is fulfilled for all who would partake of its fruits.
Instead, we have shut ourselves inside the upholstered prisons of our own particular views, our own vision of utopia, our own fears and suspicions and prejudices. We have come to view large swaths of our fellow citizens as The Enemy, beyond redemption and unworthy of our sterling counsel and company. In other words, if you have managed to navigate your way through this election season without calling someone an idiot or a dupe or worse, without unfriending and/or blocking someone on Facebook, and without having offended, angered or lost a good friend, then you might just be the glue that’s holding the country together.
Partly because of my own occasional overzealousness in my support of one candidate, my condemnation of another, and my rising unease about the way the whole thing has played out, I’m not very hopeful that the glue is going to hold once this thing’s over. No matter who wins, my fellow Americans, we’ve got a hard row to hoe.
So what will happen? Again, regardless of the winner, it’s going to be incumbent on all concerned to call a halt to the cultural hostilities. Otherwise, I’m not sure we do continue to survive. Fear and loathing are the most corrosive emotions we possess, and if we don’t get them in check — if we do not check our own, and embrace others for doing the same — and begin to focus on the essential beliefs and aspirations and challenges and opportunities that we share, rather than the things that divide us, then the outcome of this election really might not matter.
“Never hope without an element of despair,” wrote my favorite Stoic philosopher, Seneca. “Never despair without an element of hope.”
So, as I vote later today, certainly I’m voting in hopes that the candidate I am supporting will be victorious. But, despite much evidence to the contrary, I’m also voting with the hope that our nation survives the outcome. I’m voting in hopes that my despair — and the collective despair evidenced by the steady downward slog of this miserable campaign — will be dispelled, that the fog of our political hatreds will dissipate so that we may again see clearly the means of our progression and redemption.
In this I have been encouraged today, as I’ve monitored social media throughout the day and seen some of the same hopes being expressed by people on all sides. I’m going to cite a couple of examples, both from Facebook entries of people I know personally, and whom I therefore hope will not mind being identified and quoted here.
“As most of you know,” wrote Birmingham attorney Brad Botes, who happens to be married to a high school classmate of mine, “I support Hillary Clinton for POTUS and earnestly hope that she will win. That being said, I will absolutely support the will of my fellow citizens and continue to respect the office of POTUS if her opponent prevails. It is my hope and prayer that whoever loses will graciously accept defeat and encourage his or her supporters to do the same. Our form of government has many flaws, but it is better than any other yet developed by mankind. Let’s all show respect for our electoral process and move forward together!”
The other post I’ll mention was from John Coldewey, a friend from college days who lives in Georgia, and whom I have not seen for three decades. I was pleased to reconnect with John via Facebook sometime in the past couple of years, not least because he was, and is, one of the funniest and most fun-loving people I’ve ever known. In addition, John is (I don’t think he’ll mind my saying) about equal parts Trump supporter and Hillary hater. This has been a source of consternation to certain of my left-leaning friends who were unaware of my personal relationship to this guy who seems to take delight in provoking their ire.
For John, while his political convictions are very real, this frequent stirring of the opposition into high dudgeon has been a source of great delight — especially when he does it in connection with some post or another of mine. And yet, knowing his sincere belief that the election of Hillary Clinton may well usher in the End Times, I was a little surprised, not 10 minutes after running across Brad’s post, to see one from John that expressed a similar sentiment.
“Just saying, my friends,” was his simple post, above a meme that quoted Thomas Jefferson: “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”
Let’s take those words to heart. Let’s remember that, ultimately, we’re all in this together, and that the success or failure of our nation in the wake of this divisive election season relies on our ability to recognize that, and to act accordingly toward one another.
Let us dare to hope. Otherwise, despair might be all that’s left to us.