WASHINGTON, D.C. — If there’s one thing that Republican and Democrats in the 2020 election share, it’s angst.
This year’s election, amid a pandemic, amid economic instability and distrust of institutions, has done little to bring out the best in the country’s political animals.
In the Washington metro region, the local Washington Post newspaper reported sign burning and insulting gestures toward those displaying publicly their affection for their presidential candidate. Even Halloween decorations in the nation’s capital displayed cynicism, including one of a plastic skeleton with a tombstone that says “RIP integrity” holding a list of senators deemed hypocrites.
“Both sides see the outcome of this election in existential terms: If the other side wins, it’s the end of the republic,” said Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund.
He made the comments as a panelist in the Oct. 27 “Election 2020: The Moral and Public Obligations of Winners, Losers and the Rest of Us,” co-sponsored by the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and supported by the Democracy Fund.
Panelists offered practical tips for anxious voters and what to do if the outcome takes a while to resolve, while also looking at what people can do to move forward, particularly if the outcome isn’t what they had hoped for.
Goldman said while he has strong concerns that make him feel as if “if the wrong match is lit, (the fire) could be very hard to put out,” the best thing to do until the election is settled is to be patient.
“What’s important is getting it right and if getting it right in this election takes a little bit longer than it normally would, then that’s OK,” he said.
Panelist Christine Emba, an opinion columnist and editor for The Washington Post, said that people need to exercise calm and not give in to irrational fear.
She shared anecdotes from some of her colleagues who have spoken to anxious voters around the country, including one who said she was going to take her kids, go into the garage and turn on the car and wait for the exhaust to kill them, afraid of what the country would look like if a certain candidate won. Some said they would leave the country if their candidate didn’t win.
“The world is not going to end, I think, if our preferred candidate does not win, and we should not cause the world to end through our fears, through acting on uncertain information, moving too fast,” Emba said.
If there’s a waiting period to see which candidate won, it won’t do any good to keep cheering for the candidate, agitating others by doing so, Emba said. Instead, turn off Twitter, turn off commentary on TV, which is likely to be filled with misinformation, and focus on “working to set our enmity aside,” she said.
“At a certain point, the votes are already in. It’s too late to change the outcome. Fanning the flames will do more harm than good,” she warned. “What we need to do is sit tight and wait for the answer.”
Panelist Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum and former special assistant to President George W. Bush, said it’s important for the winning candidate to bring calm to an anxious populace.
“Part of being a leader is to bring out the better angels of one’s nature to push back against fear, against the distortions, perception and behavior that we are all prone to as fallen creatures,” she added.
“Fear has been driving a lot of unfortunate, even pathological, behavior in this election and in this season,” Harder said. “I think it’s an important part of any leader to say what is true, to abide by the law and to push back against fear, and to help unite a fractured people.”
But what people want from leaders “is probably different from what will actually happen based on the leader that we currently have in office,” said Emba. In the absence of a calming presence, regular people have to be leaders.
People of faith have to remember the dignity of others, consider what the Gospel says about seeking truth, look to build consensus and move toward peace, which is the message of Christ, panelists said.
“We, as individuals, will have to lead in our families, our communities, in our neighborhoods, online, on Twitter, on social media, in the days to come and after the election, as we wait for votes to be counted,” Emba said.
Should a change of administration happen, Harder said, “the most basic thing we can expect of our leaders is that they will fulfill the oath of office they affirmed: that they will obey, and protect and promote the law, and that means stepping down if they have been defeated and doing so in a peaceful way.”
Washington insiders Republican Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Democrat Denis McDonough, former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, who also were on the panel, said this moment calls for unity, for a leader who will say how the country will move forward for the good of all, not just a political party.
McDonough said the country’s enemies and allies would be watching this experience given the national security concerns about those who want to harm the American experiment.
“The world will be surprised, and Americans will be proud of what we do,” he said.
Steele said voters should take a long hard look in their interior and ask certain questions, which while difficult, are necessary to ask.
“Ask yourself: What are you angry about? Why are you so fearful of ‘other’? What’s driving that? Because that goes to the heart and the soul of all this,” he said. “What is it about this country that you’re afraid of the change that you see? What is it about your neighbor, and your neighborhood, that’s making you so angry? When you go to the Walmart and you see someone there, what is it that you’re feeling in your gut? Because that’s what we gotta get at.”
People need to take a deep look into their interior, he said, because all the negative activity ultimately reflects that and elected leaders reflect that, too, he said. You can blame others, but it really starts in the interior of what people in the country feel inside, Steele added.
“It’s about: What is it that’s animating my anger, my fears, my frustrations,” he said. “Take that seriously in the heart and then do the things that you just heard: pray on it, reflect on it, turn off the Twitter account for 24 hours.
“Step away from the moment and understand exactly how you want to be in this space, and how you want to act as you consider your neighbor,” Steele continued. “Because that’s the only way we really begin to get at this. And if we can start with that internal reflection, then we can project out externally the Gospel and everything else that comes from that.”