This is the most rancorous presidential election I can remember in my 58 years as an American, though to be fair, I pretty much ignored all political discourse until the Watergate hearings, and the only reason I paid attention then was because in those days, most families only had one television set, and the adults were in charge of it.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you have a kid under the age of 14, you can put to rest your fears that she will be permanently damaged by the rhetoric in this election because she is not listening to any of it. She is only listening to other 14-year-olds, who are perkier and cuter than Donald Trump and who would not be caught dead in a pantsuit.
But in three days what many Americans are calling the worst election ever finally will be over. Here in California, many of us will breathe a collective sigh of relief and then light up our legal recreational joints and take long tokes in an effort to erase the whole spectacle from our memories. And the memories will fade, with or without THC coursing through our veins, because they always do.
It is important to point out that while this election might signal a new low in political discourse, it isn’t our worst moment in politics. We have lived through Joseph McCarthy, after all. And the Watergate hearings that first brought politics to my attention was perhaps the most divisive scandal in modern politics, though it might be worth remembering that it came on the heels of the Pentagon Papers. Then there was Iran-Contra, followed by Monica Lewinsky’s and Bill Clinton’s shenanigans. And after the dust settled, we were always a little wiser, and eventually a lot more united in our opinions.
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Today, most Americans agree that McCarthy was despicable, Nixon was a morally corrupt but in some ways effective president, and our role in Vietnam’s civil war was not our finest decade. We all understand that we should not bargain with terrorists and that our country seems more respectable when our presidents don’t dally with interns who, like most 20-somethings, wait too long to do their laundry.
Our democracy is no better or worse than we are as individuals, and we are flawed. But we are also basically decent, and we keep plugging along, sometimes learning as we go, sometimes not, but usually finding some common ground in the end.
I believe that on Nov. 9 we’ll begin the process of returning to that basic decency. We will decide, eventually, that the majority of citizens who supported Trump in this election were not a basket of deplorables but were instead reacting to their fears about the future, fears we all have occasionally. We will agree that a man who boasts about his daughter’s physical attributes on shock-talk radio is probably not the best representative of who we are, or at least who we want to be. We’ll move on, and within a year it will all be a hazy nightmare.
And we’ll do that because we really are lucky to be Americans, and we know it. We have far more to unite us than to tear us apart, and that’s why our democracy survives.
And so, in this column, I’m going to offer a short list of the best things about the United States. I’ve been inspired by the social media campaign from Canada titled “Tell America It’s Great,” because even though Canadians like to pretend they hate us, they really don’t, and that’s kind of how we Americans think of ourselves, too. It’s a random list and, of course, incomplete.
My list of what keeps Americans from starting a modern civil war:
1. Of course, I must begin the list with football, the NFL version.
I personally hate football.
I can think of nothing more boring than watching a bunch of guys chase a ball around a flat field. Maybe if they did it in a field set up for steeple-chase racing, with fences to jump and bodies of water to traverse, or if they ran that field while being chased by grizzly bears and wolves, I would pay attention. But just running from one goal to the next, back and forth?
However, I’ll concede that most Americans do like NFL football, and they are united in their good-natured team rivalries. We have even created a national holiday out of football, a day I call “Not Too Much Longer Before the Academy Awards.”
2. Movies. India has a robust popular film industry, and many wonderful artistic films are made around the globe. But we have Hollywood, and despite its flaws, Hollywood is pretty terrific.
Consider the old standards such as Buster Keaton, Myrna Loy and William Powell, Jimmy Stewart, and the many other incomparable stars of American cinema, far too many to name here. Or we can fast forward to today – Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper. There are filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers.
We are rightfully proud of our films, many of them thought-provoking, many of them grand entertainment, many of them cornerstones upon which our culture is built.
3. Blues. Leadbelly. Muddy Waters. Howlin’ Wolf. Nina Simone. John Lee Hooker. Buddy Guy. Billie Holiday. B.B. King. Janis Joplin. Odetta. Even if you’re not a blues fan, if you listen to any popular music made in the United States, you have been influenced by these musicians. And they were inspired by slave spirituals, proof that we Americans have taken one of our most painful realities and turned it into music and lyrics that are heart-wrenching in their beauty.
4. Immigration. Unless you are 100 percent American Indian, you are an immigrant or the progeny of immigrants. Some groups have been here longer than others, but they all came here for similar reasons and they all faced some degree of discrimination.
Ask most Americans what they are, and they’ll mention another country of origin – they’ll say they’re Italian or Irish or German – because we all still carry some of the traditions our forebears brought here with them. Some Americans might want to believe that their immigration story is different from the stories of Syrians or other newer immigrants, but if they look back just a little bit in American history, they’ll see that their immigration stories are more alike than different in every case, and the status of documentation is only one very small piece of a much larger, unifying story.
I could add many items to the list, but I’m limited by space.
I do have one more thought to add, though, and this is it: Clearly, this election has laid bare a turbulence that roils just beneath the surface in our country. But we’ve survived worse before and we’ll move past this, too. And, when we do, we’ll be a little wiser and, eventually, more united in our opinions about the presidential election of 2016.
And our kids won’t even remember it.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.