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Will 2021 bring the happy ending America so desperately needs?

Will 2021 bring the happy ending America so desperately needs?
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2020 has strained the patience of every citizen. In our personal lives, our perseverance has been worn thin by the recommendations of health care professionals to wear face masks and maintain social distancing. Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciDelta variant's UK dominance sparks concerns in US Overnight Health Care: FDA says millions of J&J doses from troubled plant must be thrown out | WHO warns Africa falling far behind in vaccinations | Top CDC official says US not ready for next pandemic Top CDC official warns US not ready for next pandemic MORE warns that in the new year there will be “surge upon surge,” as the COVID-19 pandemic races to become the worst public health crisis in the nation’s history, with an estimated 400,000 Americans dead by Inauguration Day — a number both terrifying and difficult to comprehend. Americans will not simply bid goodbye to 2020, but good riddance.

Our government also is in crisis, one that President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE seeks to perpetuate. At every turn, he has refused to admit defeat, charging that the 2020 election was “stolen.” Unlike Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterQueen Elizabeth will need to call upon her charm for Biden's visit Is Biden the new FDR or LBJ? History says no Kevin McCarthy should meet the Ronald Reagan of 1978 MORE and George H. W. Bush, two presidents stung by defeat who facilitated the transition of power to their successors, Trump has irresponsibly withheld information from President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE’s transition team that jeopardizes the nation’s security. Particularly ominous are the 70 percent of Republicans who believe Biden will be an “illegitimate President,” thereby jeopardizing chances for a successful Biden administration. Today the mutual “bonds of affection,” of which Abraham Lincoln so eloquently spoke, are strained by the breaking apart of the country into two separate universes, each comfortable in its own partisanship and both economically and culturally worlds apart. 

Such testing of our constitutional democracy is not new. Historically, there have been several presidential elections conducted under severe national strain. Four stand out: 1864, 1940, 1944 and 1964. Each was held during a national emergency, and in all there are echoes of what happened in 2020. 

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Running for reelection in 1864 under the slogan, “No Party Now, But All for Our Country,” Abraham Lincoln declared that victory would mean that the people acted “for the best interests of their country and the world, not only for the present, but for all future ages.” But defeat, he warned, meant that voters should have resolved “to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty.” As in 2020, questions were raised about whether holding an election was even possible, but in the midst of the Civil War the ballots were counted, and Lincoln prevailed. Six months later the war ended, and the nation’s democratic experiment, though battered, continued.

1940 and 1944 were other contests marred by crises. In 1940, World War II was underway in Europe, and Adolf Hitler was on the march, having captured Czechoslovakia, Poland and France, with Britain’s future hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, an aggressive Japan seized Indochina and was asserting its dominance in the Pacific. Addressing the 1940 Democratic National Convention, Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that “all private plans, all private lives have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger.” Setting aside his own plans to retire to his tranquil Hyde Park estate, “Dr. New Deal” became “Dr. Win the War.” Four years later with the war still raging, Roosevelt again set aside his retirement plans. Voters reaffirmed FDR’s leadership, and nearly six months after another fateful Election Day, World War II ended and the immediate danger passed.

1964 was another year when an election was held under a severe national strain. The country was grievously shaken by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, scarred in the words of Theodore H. White by “death and unreason.” Lyndon B. Johnson promised to complete Kennedy’s unfinished work while seeking his own mandate. Meanwhile, the Republican Party underwent its own cataclysm with the nomination of Barry Goldwater. Suddenly, the ideological distance between the two major parties widened to give voters, in Goldwater’s words, “A Choice, Not an Echo.” Johnson won with 61 percent of the popular vote. In victory, Johnson found a silver lining in Goldwater’s trouncing: “I think an overwhelming defeat. . .will be the best thing that could happen to the Republican Party. . . . Because then you would restore moderation to that once great party of Abraham Lincoln and the leadership then could unite and present a solid front to the world.”

Moderation eventually came in the person of Richard M. Nixon, while Johnson enacted his Great Society programs with the continuity of government assured. One wonders whether today’s Republican Party will once again find itself after Donald Trump’s decisive defeat. 

Novelist William Dean Howells once observed that Americans like “a tragedy with a happy ending.” In many ways, the contests of 1864, 1940, 1944 and 1964 featured both tragedies and “happy endings.” Wars were won, landmark legislation was passed and the two-party system endured. But the happy ending we seek following the extremis of COVID-19 is far from assured. Joe Biden acknowledges the difficulties ahead: “I know this won’t be easy. I know how deep and hard our opposing views are in our country on so many things,” he said after the election. “But I also know this as well. To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies. What brings us together as Americans is so much stronger than anything that can tear us apart.”

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Reflecting Biden’s optimism, the theme for the 2021 inaugural ceremony sets a hopeful tone: “Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union.” In the words of congressional planners, the slogan is designed to illustrate “our continued and unbroken commitment to continuity, stability, perseverance, and democracy.”

In 1864, the great poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the White House to see President Lincoln. Emerson brought good news, telling him, “The great West is with you.” But upon hearing this welcome report about his reelection prospects, Lincoln was grim: “Yes,” he replied, “But I am sometimes reminded of Old Mother Partington on the sea beach. A big wave came up and waves began to rise till the water came in under her cabin door. She got a broom and went to sweeping it out. But the water rose higher and higher, to her knees, to her waist, at last to her chin. But she kept on sweeping and exclaiming, ‘I’ll keep on sweeping as long as the broom lasts, and we’ll see whether the storm or the broom lasts the longest.’" 

In 2021, Old Mother Partington will still be sweeping, the waters rising and the broom weakened. Soon Joe Biden and the rest of us will learn whether the waters recede, the broom holds and the happy ending the country so desperately needs comes to pass.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”