As I write this, there are only 22 hours left of the Trump administration. Joe Biden will be sworn in as the forty-sixth President of the United States, and the country will immediately return to tranquility. If only…
In reality, Biden will be sworn in under circumstances eerily similar to those facing Lincoln at his 1861 Inauguration. A country divided, armed insurgents on the prowl to make good threats on his life, forced to sneak into Washington in disguise under cover of darkness. Threats of violence and secession in the news. A nation on edge.
The present turmoil also brings to mind the degree to which politics and political matters intruded into the public consciousness both during the four years of the Civil War, and for the antebellum years immediately preceding it. Aside from that period, even during World Wars I and II, with the possible brief exception of the combined Vietnam and Civil Rights era, the past four year’s awareness, nay, obsession, with every tweet, speech, debate, vote, appointment, nomination, and pardon by politicians isn’t the norm.
As a rule, the rank and file citizens of America are not the most politically astute. We haven’t had to be.
Americans in general, and white Americans in particular, have historically been blessed with relative stability. This has been achieved both by notoriously slow-moving political machinery (thanks to the genius of the Founders), and a near universal ethos of public pride in our national identity. That combination has made the world of politics nearly invisible to the average American. During campaign season we might take notice, usually to complain about the proliferation of ads that interrupt our entertainment, but mid-term elections usually motivate such little fanfare and such a small turnout that they aren’t the cause of vida interruptus to the typical citizen.
The bygone general antipathy to politics means that a lot of Americans are not too well-versed even in our own system. (Evidence the fact that Alabama just elected a Senator who didn’t know the three branches of the federal government). Lest you think I’m guilty of overstating the political ignorance of the typical American, a 2018 article in US News, cites a survey showing 2 out of 3 Americans could not pass a US Citizenship test!
Up to 2020 this ignorance hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. Americans have remained ignorant both of our history and our politics because we could afford to be ignorant. It hasn’t really hurt us. Ignorant or not, the government chugged along. The institutions worked. The politicians and bureaucrats did their jobs well enough to fly under the radar. Our government, with very rare exceptions, has operated invisibly. One can make a strong argument that it ought to be that way.
Government by representation should be able to function without demanding the overweening attention of its citizenry. If we were a pure Democracy that would be different. The need for attention to every detail of government and familiarity with every policy debate would be expected. But we elect representatives so we can go about our daily lives leaving those details in what we hope are the capable hands of representatives.
But the days of invisible government are over.
2020 marked the indelible tearing of the curtain. 400,000 dead Americans revealed a government that could not be safely ignored. We must assign blame where it is due. Hundreds of thousands of our countrymen needlessly perished from what turns out to be the unbelievable incompetence of our elected leaders. They were either too vapid or too uncaring to muster the strategic wisdom and perseverance to face a National Public Health Emergency brought on by a pandemic that was no one’s fault. But the failed response certainly is the fault of the administration which largely ignored the severity of it, and focused instead on changing the ”messaging” for fear of the political fallout.
If that wasn’t enough, we faced a crisis of racial tension as once again we try to confront the ugly ghosts of our white supremacist, empirical past that we’ve drug with us into the present.
And those things combined seemed to bring out the worst in us as a people. I am old enough to have grown used to a crisis bringing out the best in Americans. Times when we would unite around our commonality, not splinter into hate-filled tribes waving the flags of our divisions. But that wasn’t the case in 2020 and right up to Inauguration day of 2021.
When we needed to be the best possible Americans, united in common purpose, we devolved into a seething cauldron of grievance and mistrust. Mostly born of plain and simple ignorance. This climate became the perfect Petri dish for mixing in bald-faced lies about a ”stolen election” fed to us by the very representatives sworn to defend a document dedicated to uniting us more perfectly. I don’t know if there ever will be a vaccine for that.
And on the day the electoral votes were to be counted and certified we witnessed the worst kind of anti-Democratic, murderous, occult-mixed-with-pseudo-Christian mob this country has ever amassed. And that radicalized mob despoiled the sanctity of our national Capital and sought to disenfranchise millions of fellow citizens to keep a lying autocrat in power.
Good-bye forever to the relative stability we Americans have so long enjoyed. Good-bye forever to the blissful ignorance of the politically naive and unlearned. 2020 revealed just what happens when we put persons in positions of power who are only interested in the power, not in the ends for which the power is granted. We, the People are responsible for what has happened. We the People, are the only ones who can affect a positive change.
We have endured a year of unprecedented division, loss of life, distrust, and near insurrection made worse by the abject incompetence and servile vanity of our national elected leaders on both sides of the aisle. They proved themselves more interested in attacking each other than attacking the multi-headed crises we average citizens have faced.
I will forever long for the days when our government was functional enough to be invisible. But that invisible government is dead.
I’m afraid Wednesday’s oaths and Bibles and handshakes aren’t going to heal our country or our government anytime soon. But I’m certain that the path to healing is based on truth, on justice, and on our collective knowledge and attention to what our elected leaders are doing in our names.