America on edge — again
A year ago this week we were watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Chris Wallace of Fox News tried to moderate an unruly and thoroughly disappointing “debate” in which President Trump did most of the interrupting and former Vice President Biden pleaded, “Will you shut up, Man?” Trump was already warning of election fraud from mail-in votes, and Biden insisted that the fraudulent one was Trump. It was ugly and tense.
Then came November and election night was tense and unresolved. It was a Saturday after the polls closed that Biden was declared the victor, with Pennsylvania putting him over the top with 273 electoral votes.
Trump vowed to fight on — in the courts and in the court of public opinion, and a national standoff settled in like cement.
Biden said it was “time to heal America. …We have an opportunity to defeat despair, to build a nation of prosperity and purpose.” Sadly, the healing never really happened.
Hate re-emerged in our country with protests after the death of George Floyd, attacks on Asian Americans, dueling extremist rallies and the emergence of the Delta variant of COVID-19. Jan. 6 opened a new front in the battle for democracy, aided and abetted by a virus that sickened an already weakened body politic.
So here we are in a major league moment of tension, in the ninth inning of a national budget fight over the debt ceiling, with threats of a government shutdown and arguments over funding the most basic of American life: infrastructure.
At the same time that Democrats and Republican are at war, new data from the FBI show that we are killing each other at historic rates, with more murders reported in 2020 than any other year going back to 1960, when data were first available.
Democracy is like any muscle. It has memory and it needs exercising. We got our kids back to school, and they will be learning about America. We want them to know about government and civility — that we practice it not only once a year on July 4 but on a daily basis.
Right now, Americans are tired, worn out, disgusted and disappointed. The U.S. Census Bureau finds that a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression. This is a huge jump from even before the COVID-19 pandemic. In a question about depressed mood, the percentage of Americans who reported symptoms doubled from 2014. Gallup also found historic increases in stress and worry across all categories and sectors.
Financial pressures are high today. Americans are having a crisis of confidence over the economy, and the threat of a government shutdown only deepens the anxiety. But we still have enough energy to lift one another’s spirits and bring ourselves back to being a nation of hope and optimism.
First, let’s get this pandemic under control. Let’s deploy faith leaders, local physicians and others. If you took a shot as a kid against measles, mumps and dozens of other diseases, just take this one. Move on.
Second, start demanding compromise. It’s not a dirty word. Extremists on both sides of the aisle are troublemakers. They feed on dissent and attention. Nobody gets everything they want in a bill, a piece of legislation, an inheritance or a relationship. Get over it. Let’s find that middle ground and occupy it.
Third, remember why we are here. We come into the world without hate, anger, prejudice or malice. We all inherit the same planet, and our choice is to make it better or worse. If you want to do the former, get involved in your community. If you want to do the latter, stay home alone.
This is the season to change the dynamic by communicating a sense of shared responsibility. It starts with us; it ends with us.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
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