Election Day 2020 is rapidly approaching. In fact, voting-by-mail and early in-person voting are already underway with record levels of participation. As always, this electoral cycle is noteworthy for its never-ending campaign commercials, talking head analysts, yard signs, text messages, and countless canvassing phone calls. But the 2020 Presidential campaign has an unprecedented look and feel this time around. It’s a bit like reading two entirely different stories within the same book. On one hand, the incumbent President is trying to bend our horrific pandemic-American reality into a surreal false narrative that “Coronavirus shouldn’t dominate our lives”– even as Trump simultaneously washes the blood of over 223,000 (and counting) American Covid-19 deaths from his hands. He recklessly holds rallies drawing raucous, unmasked crowds in the face of record new daily spikes in cases, partying like it’s pre-pandemic 2019. In sharp contrast, Trump’s challenger, Joe Biden, has taken a campaign approach that far more realistically, maturely, and safely reflects the sober truth of where we are in this pandemic.
As is typical, the 2020 Presidential campaign has been accompanied by heated and highly divisive emotion and rhetoric. Some of us actually feed on these things, while others of us try to ignore the background noise. Some are voting on the factual basis of each candidate’s experience, competence, vision, character, policy plans, or broad ideology. Conversely, others are casting their ballots influenced largely by the candidate’s personality, celebrity (or cult-like) status, or shock-value. Or based on the constant, repetitive, and self-reinforcing echo-chamber of highly partisan news/opinion sources that they already tune into each day. Yet still others are using one-off wedge issues like abortion, same sex marriage, or gun rights to decide, ignoring the bigger picture. In these cases, the candidate’s decency, competency, and fitness to hold office don’t really matter.
Some voters are turned off by the whole thing and will simply stay home on election day. They’re declining to participate, resigned to their own bleak assessment that their votes don’t really count for much. That their voices have been silenced. Or that no candidate is worthy of their efforts to vote in person or by mail. Amongst even those who actually vote, a deep cynicism is growing within our population. Many no longer trust elected officials to solve our problems anymore in an era of divisive, unproductive party politics. When this erosion of trust occurs to the degree it has, some (whether they vote or not) begin to gravitate toward the extremes of autocratic authoritarianism or populism. They feel the need to install forceful, dominating ‘strong-men’ types to govern (albeit far less responsively to the people). Or, alternatively, they want to grab power back from the elites and return it to the masses. Unfortunately, we have neither of these in the current Trump Administration. Instead, we’re witnessing the painful, messy mash-up of incompetent elitism/authoritarianism under the false guise of populism. The joke is on us.
It’s fairly easy to debunk the premise that strong Governmental/Institutional Authoritarianism actually works. We need only examine the litany of abuses by autocratic ‘ruling’ elites throughout the many decades of our county’s history: The institution and legislative protection of slavery. The purposeful genocide of Native Americans. Jim Crow laws and the resistance by many in our government to the Civil Rights Movement. The continued violence against persons of color today due to the militarization of our police and an all-to-pervasive attitude that Black Lives don’t really matter. The worsening concentration of wealth on ‘Wall Street’, not ‘Main Street’. Tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% while rewarding stock market investment far more than actual work. The existence of staggering wage differentials between corporate executives and the people who actually build/deliver our products and services. The creation of tax loopholes for large corporations (and for our current President as well), while the masses must dutifully pay their taxes. The willful denial of our rapidly worsening climate crisis. And, of course, the wanton disregard for the suffering of millions of Americans (disproportionately the elderly, poor, and communities of color) due to the negligence of the White House in handling Covid-19.
What’s more, the alternative notion of Populism doesn’t offer much relief either. The problem with populism is that, while it emphasizes the forgotten ‘little guys’ of this world, it usually just panders to them. It often represents nothing more than the politics of grievance. It patronizes constituencies. It constantly reminds people that elites don’t care about ordinary, average citizens like us on Main Street; it demands respect and a fair shake; then it asks voters to elect officials who will do right by us. But these officials, once installed in power, invariably become autocratic elites themselves— focused on perpetuating their power and serving their own self-interests more than solving problems for their constituents. And, in the process, populist governance ends up morphing back into incompetent authoritarianism. And around and around we go.
Ultimately speaking, both elitist authoritarianism and populism are unhealthy responses to human fear. Further, they reflect a lack of trust in our institutions, as currently constituted, to competently manage the rapidly increasing rate of change in our society. Trump is actively fomenting this fear and mistrust through his ceaseless propagation of patently bizarre conspiracy theories and outright lies. But even more importantly, Trump’s flawed brand of combo autocracy/populism reflects a desperate desire to hold onto (or recapture) the past. Hence the slogan, Make America Great Again. Here’s the problem with this: it’s the word ‘Again’. America was never completely and totally great to begin with. We have a nuanced, complicated, and mixed history, some of which is very admirable. Some not so much. Frankly, a lot of our history is also ‘fable-ized’, overly simplified, and highly sanitized. It’s been written far too often by the victors of struggle, not by the victims. Told too often by the powerful and privileged, not by the marginalized. By whites over persons of color. By the rich over the poor. In real truth, we have always been a work in progress as a nation. And change has always been necessary if we strive to be better. The beauty of our country is in its potential, not its past realization.
More specifically, the American Dream is founded on the notion of Shared Ascension– not one of individual decline fed by selfish, racist, or hateful division and fracturing. Shared ascension is driven by moving together toward common ideals such as freedom, liberty, equality, basic human rights, dignity, fairness of opportunity, joint sacrifice, and informed, active participation in representative government. These ideals are never achieved by looking back. Instead they’re continuously discovered by looking forward. They embrace the often difficult and challenging processes of growth. And they become more inclusive along the way. They adopt the proper usage of the term ‘progressivism’— meaning ongoing change for the common good. Constructively effecting changes in our unjust or inefficient power structures and systems whenever or wherever they’re needed. Now that’s American patriotism in the best sense of the word.
To be sure, this process of ‘future-creation’ is usually messy. Oftentimes, there is disagreement, the difficult balancing of rights, the relative weighing of individual versus collective interests, and the interplay of liberty versus regulation and oversight. Further, we must accept the fact that our government isn’t perfect. Desired change is never fully achieved by our elected leaders. Instead, change requires time, persistence, and grit. It is often about making things incrementally better, not insisting on perfection. Even seemingly non-visionary, small changes can add up over time to create a more perfect union. A future in which we can all thrive. If we embrace the possibilities of our ever-evolving nation, there is nothing we cannot achieve together over time in the spirit of human decency, dignity, love, justice, and fellowship. That’s something we can truly unite in, regardless of our narrow political party affiliations.
It starts with each and every one of us doing our parts by faithfully casting our ballots in the election before us now. This election is, perhaps, the most important in modern U.S. history. Our country is at a crossroads. Literally everything rides on the electoral outcomes of 2020, including exactly who we want to be as a nation. Each of us must Lift our Voices and vote like our very lives and souls depend on it. Because, actually, they do. Not just for today. But for all our shared tomorrows. Now, to be fully transparent, I’ve already voted. The ballot selection for President/Vice President was quite clear and straightforward for me relative to the two major political party candidates running. I see only one real choice to get this right. Only one real choice to effect constructive, positive change in our collective future lives together. I fervently believe that if you agree with anything I’ve said in this article, the choice should be equally obvious to you.
Oh, and by the way, what on earth does all this have to do with inclusive and existential human spirituality, wholeness, and vitality? The answer is: Everything.