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What do we do on November 9?

By Ken Reynolds

 

As these words go to press we are a few days away from the climax of a far too lengthy presidential competition. A friend has asked me if this is the most contentious, most divisive and/or most depressing campaign in our nation's history.

I know of no definitive way to answer the question, except to refer to the 1860 campaign. But it was not the campaign, or the election, that was the problem; it was what we did and did not do after the voting. Knowing the history of other divisive contests is valuable for perspective, but historical perspective helps only if we heed what we learn.

After Lincoln won the presidency, a collective unwillingness to resolve the great basic weakness in our Constitution led to blood, death and scars that continue to cause pain. Yes, it is good to know, but far better to use the knowledge for a constructive purpose.

If the polls are correct—and private conversations convince me they are—the majority of the country has negative feelings about and is disappointed with both major party candidates. If most Americans are disappointed that the system did not produce better candidates, we are probably not going to be any less disappointed after November 8, although we may be relieved the less desirable candidate lost.

The election is a competition to choose one winner. However, one winner does not mean everyone, including the one who wins, cannot lose.

We can focus on the issues that unite us and go forward to a better future, or we can continue dividing into ever more bitter camps with hostility to the "other." There is only one logical outcome to continuing hostility. We tried that method in 1861, and without solving the problem we killed more than one-half million of our brothers, friends and neighbors.

It is equally important for both the winners and the losers to consider carefully their answer to a vital question: What am I, personally, going to do to make sure my country is all I believe it should be for my family, friends and neighbors—including those who avidly supported the losing candidate?

How we, individually and together, respond to the outcome of the election will influence our future more than which candidate wins.

There are countless other questions, but they each tie back to the vital one about our own individual actions after the election. In considering a course of action we might ask, what is wrong with the system that produced such undesirable results? It is tempting to say you can't fight city hall, but the presidential primary system is not city hall. It is private and a product of the political parties. If your voice does not matter to your own political party, what makes you think the party speaks for you? Or deserves your support?

Members of both parties are rightly concerned about the widespread, growing and seemingly recalcitrant discontent on the extremes of the right and the left. As much as I may long for the post WWII personal tranquility of my school and college days, I recognize the world has changed and will continue to change. More importantly, I have learned the tranquility of my life was personal and it did not apply to a significant percentage of the people in my little town.

We may want things to be good again, but the definition of good keeps changing as each new generation puts their own improvements in place.

The world shifted on September 11, 2001. It had changed before that horrendous day, but most Americans were insulated and did not feel it. Today, we face far greater dangers than Republicans or Democrats.

One danger comes from forces beyond our borders who want to destroy us. Internally, danger comes from individuals and groups who abuse our freedoms and laws to their own benefit, while driving more individuals towards the extremes.

Our system of government is still fragile. The founders tried to limit the influence of factions, but they could not have foreseen the changes in transportation and communications the world has lived through since the 18th Century. Factions and single-issue interests can and do attract larger audiences and more supporters than our founders could have imagined.

Promising simple fixes to people who feel left out, on the left or the right generates unrest and expectations of easy fixes. Such appeals may be popular and garner votes, but there are no easy fixes.

We cannot let our internal divisions make us more vulnerable to the external dangers. Each of us, individually and together, must put America before party and before personal interest. We have to heal ourselves and our government. We cannot survive otherwise.

 

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