In three weeks, many of us will gather for a Thanksgiving curtailed by the pandemic and darkened by the election we just held.
I say “darkened” even though I am writing this post on Tuesday morning, as polls across the country are opening for the final day of in-person voting. I don’t know whether President Donald Trump will win a second term. Maybe we will know by the time this column is published. Maybe we won’t know for certain until after Thanksgiving; the Supreme Court did not hand down its decisive 2000 election decision in Bush v. Gore until Dec. 12.
We do know that on Thanksgiving Day, millions of us will be bitterly disappointed by the results if we know them. Even if we don’t, many on both sides will remain very angry at relatives, friends, acquaintances, celebrities and anonymous strangers who voted differently than they did.
The feelings are understandable, but the anger is useless and ultimately destructive. Most people recognize this, once the emotions subside.
Think of parents who rejected a child over the child’s sexuality, and the hurt experienced by that child, of any age, as a result. Think of weddings that went unattended because the parties getting married were not the traditional man and woman, or because the spouses-to-be were of different races or faiths. With tolerance and the objectivity that comes with distance, I think most of us today would shake our heads and think, “What a pity.”
Think of the 232,000 Americans known to have died already from COVID-19. Consider the thousands of deaths beyond this number that the pandemic caused this year, along with countless other hardships. Would those families care how their loved ones voted, if they could have them back for one more Thanksgiving?
Aging offers the benefit of perspective. This was the 12th presidential election in which I have voted. Before this week, my chosen candidate won five times and lost six times. In a lifetime of voting in a country with a vibrant two-party (or multiparty) system, you have to get used to losing or you will make yourself very unhappy.
A good place to start is to realize that you didn’t actually lose. Your preferred candidate lost. Your vote is your individual choice, but an election is a collective decision. In a large and dynamic society, none of us can see everyone’s perspective. We see our own, and perhaps those of the handful of people around us. The “hive mind” of the electorate balances the competing interests and perspectives of everyone who participates. Together, the electorate needs to come up with a single person to fill an office. We all get an equal voice.
You may point out that our Electoral College system does not guarantee that a president takes office with the support of a majority of the electorate, or even with the largest share of the votes. This is true. It is part of the system of checks and balances that the nation’s founders put into the system to form a unified nation out of the original colonies’ competing interests. They did not have airplanes in the 18th century, but they understood “flyover country.” The Electoral College is part of the compromise that induced citizens of places like Delaware, Rhode Island, the Carolinas and Georgia to join a federal government that otherwise would have been dominated by population centers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York. Someday, we may agree that we don’t like the constitutional compromise the founders reached. If so, they provided a mechanism for us to change it.
Seeing so many of my preferred candidates lose elections, and watching the people who defeated them serve their terms, has also made me realize that sometimes I will be glad in hindsight about how things turned out. Some of the candidates I did not support built excellent records. Others for whom I voted, and who won, proved unsuited to the task. Humility does not come naturally for everyone; experience had to beat a little of it into me.
Today we have an entire political-media complex devoted to promoting partisan warfare. Such an approach can win elections and – win or lose – it attracts eyeballs and dollars. News outlets and commentators tell us to exercise our freedom to choose, but also that our worth as human beings depends on making the choice they want us to make. They push us to identify strongly with our chosen groups and to denigrate those who belong to other camps. This sort of coverage encourages us to see differences as matters of morality, rather than policy.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, asserted in an interview that Black voters who supported Trump “will go down in history as having done the most despicable thing” to their families and communities. A young man declared “You are no longer my mother” when the woman who reared him disappointed him with her choice. Heaven knows how many relationships have broken up over politics. The Clinton-Bush era marriage of political operatives James Carville and Mary Matalin used to be entertaining. Now, to many, such a working union of professional opponents is hardly conceivable. The Pew Research Center found that, as of this summer, almost 80% of respondents said they had no or few friends who support the opposite party in the presidential race. This holds true across the political spectrum. Heated partisanship is, of course, nothing new, but current levels of political ire are unusually high.
I know of therapists who steeled themselves for a very busy week – and beyond – to follow the election. If you have access to a professional, the therapist’s office is a perfect place to unburden and work through the emotions of the moment. (A nod here to these therapists. Taking those emotions onto their professional shoulders is a grueling task that most of us don’t sufficiently appreciate. These are human beings, and they feel and absorb client stresses, even if they don’t show it.) There are books and articles available to help you, too.
It is very easy, and very human, to say regrettable things in the heat of anger or disappointment. Such words can be forgiven, but they are seldom forgotten. Appreciate the chance to be together this holiday season if you have it. Remember that while there will be many more elections, this moment will never come again.