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Americans are sick of many things — including politics

Americans are sick of many things — including politics
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The dog days of summer are receding, and September is nearly upon us. Americans are sick — literally and figuratively.

Soon we will have emerged from two political conventions — vastly different from one other in tone and ideas. The Democrats reminded us of the pain and failure in America; the Republicans are recounting their successes in fixing America. 

Both remind us that even rhetoric cannot change facts or relieve us of the pain we feel. It’s not even clear that we have the mental bandwidth for politics.

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The first night of the Republican National Convention averaged 17 million viewers, a sharp drop of 26 percent from 2016. The audience for the first night of the Democrats’ convention was down about 24 percent from 2016.

Yes, many more people were “streaming” than watching, but grazing and focusing are separate phenomena.

Americans are in a pretty bad mood:

With a few months until the 2020 elections, Americans are deeply unhappy with the state of the nation. As the United States simultaneously struggles with a pandemic, an economic recession and protests about police violence and racial injustice, the share of the public saying they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country plummeted from 31 percent in April, during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, to just 12 percent going into the summer.

Anger and fear are widespread. Majorities of Democrats and Republicans say they feel both sentiments when thinking about the country, though these feelings are more prevalent among Democrats. And just 17 percent of Americans – including 25 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and 10 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners – say they feel proud when thinking about the state of the country.

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However, 53 percent of Americans say they are not hopeful about the state of the country. 

Let’s acknowledge that COVID-19 is taking much away from American life. Nearly 180,000 Americans have died. At bedsides across the country, patients have been left behind with well-meaning nurses behind protective masks working against a whir of machines and screens. The lucky few hear voices of loved ones through cell phones or catch glimpses of faces through windows.

Death should not have to be lonely and isolating without rituals and rights to comfort the sick and the bereaved. Even grief has been denied to the nearly 200,000 Americans and their families.  

Politics is not helping. Rather than focus on the dead, we argue about the virus — whose fault it was, who delivered on their promise of care and who did not. We debate mask laws and executive power, economic stimulus packages and bailouts. We look at maps and charts, data and trends. These are all valid political issues, but they crowd out mourning, and they leave people frustrated. It’s why, I believe, fewer American watched the conventions.

September will not be less painful. Next we will mourn the loss of life from 9/11, an annual honoring of the victims of the terrorist attacks that took place on that cloudless day 19 years ago. Like the victims of COVID, the victims of 9/11 were going about their lives when tragic events took them down. Sadly, my guess is that not even September 11 this year can unite us in grief. The divisions are too deep now to expect even a modicum of empathy. We are so angry about the unevenness of our lives that we have little compassion for the common denominator of death. We are too busy fighting over who has more faith than to have any.

The bottom line is that Americans are grappling with hard issues that transcend politics. And we lack the non-partisan moral leaders to guide us through the big questions of life and death. We need explainers who help us comprehend cosmic concerns such as: Why do some of us come into the world already disadvantaged by race; others by economic injustice? What can we do about those with pre-existing conditions or genetic factors that make getting sick deadlier? How can we ensure that we are better prepared to confront fires, accidents, natural disasters, guns, COVID and all the global challenges that we fail to meet or mitigate?

We need a new start, a season of giving. It’s time to stop taking each other down and start lifting one another up. Let those with voices of compassion come forth and those who seek to divide stay silent. If nothing else, we need November, where we will vote and then eat a Thanksgiving meal of gratitude before we usher in the end of 2020 — a year to forget.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She is currently with George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.