Deconstructing an election, casting a view forward

Posted 11/5/20

Late on a recent sun-dappled Thursday afternoon, I strolled with some family members from my car toward our early voting location. There, I exchanged greetings and a few fist-bumps with friends and …

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Deconstructing an election, casting a view forward

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Late on a recent sun-dappled Thursday afternoon, I strolled with some family members from my car toward our early voting location. There, I exchanged greetings and a few fist-bumps with friends and candidates from both parties I knew who lined the sidewalk leading to the entrance. Then I walked inside, gave the friendly precinct worker my full name and address, got my ballot and voted.

When it was done, I walked away with a new ballpoint pen, courtesy of the N.C. Board of Elections, and two “I VOTED” stickers. Why two? The one I picked up had a second still attached to it; after putting both of them on my t-shirt, I replied to one questioning candidate outside, through my face covering, that, yes indeed, I’d gotten a special dispensation this year to vote twice.

I was joking, of course, but a maskless man wearing an American flag shirt — who was handing out yellow copies of ballots with his preferred candidates’ names encircled to anyone who would accept — overheard the exchange and then took a picture of me with his cell phone.

Yep, it’s been the weirdest election cycle ever.

You’ve likely voted, too, given that Chatham County’s turnout set the standard for all of North Carolina. I’m writing this on Election Day morning, and you’re reading it afterward, so right now you’re likely relieved it’s in our rear-view mirror.

And maybe, like me, you’re trying to make sense of it all.

That it’s been a wild ride doesn’t begin to qualify as an understatement. One pundit I read over the weekend described this year’s election as “a vomit milkshake.” I certainly held my nose when I cast my vote for president, but I didn’t go so far as to toss my lunch. (Check in with me again in a day or so, though.)

This election cycle, among all others, has been maddening, deeply sad and at times crushingly repugnant.

It’s tempting to join the chorus and sing about healing and reconciliation. My personal faith and glass-half-full perspective give me confidence about our future. But the present? Not so much.

It feels like we’re the “United” States in name only. Politics have helped make us way too tribal. Republican or Democrat. Red or blue. Conservative or liberal. All or nothing.

Along the way, we’ve somehow stopped being aware of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves because we’re so steeped in the narratives we construct about everyone else — particularly about those who hold even slightly different views.

We no longer look inward, only outward.

It’s reverse tribalism, in a way, and it certainly explains what’s so unique about this election season: it’s the first time in history, social scientists now tell us, that we hate the opposing political party more than we like our own. And because Americans now also hate people in the opposite political party with more fervor than ever, our behavior — not just those behaviors of the bad actors already on the political stage — brings with it even more harrowing implications about how we’re collectively going to respond to this year’s election results.

Sound crazy? No surprise there, it turns out. Another byproduct of this election is cognitive distortion, which certainly would explain some of the things some politicians (and their rabid supporters) have done and said in the weeks leading up to Tuesday. The same Northwestern University-led study which broke the news about hate also said these cognitive distortions — ways our minds convince us of things that aren’t really true — only serve to reinforce the ugly thoughts and behaviors we’ve seen in the run-up to Election Day.

The only way I know to combat hate and lies is with cooperation and truth. So here’s an idea: let’s ask the winners and the losers from Tuesday to rally around what they can agree upon and build from there. Find commonalities first. Look inward, then work outward.

In Vienna, Austria, on Monday, four people were killed and 14 injured in a shooting described by officials there as an “Islamist terror attack” after a heavily armed 20-year-old opened fire in the city center. I have a dear friend in Vienna, Lizzie, a Chinese journalist, and during three visits to Vienna in the last five years, my wife Lee Ann and I have spent hours and hours walking around the city center with her, stopping for coffee and strudel and marveling at the architecture and the city’s rich history.

We messaged Lizzie after the attack to check on her. She’s been working from her apartment there and is fine, she told us; she’s been reporting on the incident as part of her work. But even from there, she’s watching us.

“Today is supposed to be the day that people all around the world focus on America,” she wrote.

Maybe it’ll be the day we set a good example.


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