There are only two ways to respond to the US presidential election, one cataclysmic and the other chock full of hope.
You could look at what has happened in the election, and the turbulent and distressing four years since the last one and come to the discomfiting conclusion that America is disappearing.
All that we once took for granted about the adamantine quality of US culture and its institutions and practices of democracy has evaporated and, in the process, the picture we had of the leadership of the US in so many domains is irreparably fading.
The country is split asunder, incapable holding together a society and culture cleaved in two, or perhaps even more likely, shattered into tiny pieces that now cannot be stuck together again.
In effect, it is the response that chimes with the view that the US experiment, the imaginative and courageous republic dreamed up and built in the extraordinary and testing circumstances of its birth a few hundred years ago, is done. It has fallen apart or more truthfully been torn apart by powerful forces of selfishness and ignorance that presumably feel proud of the damage they have wrought. And it will be too late to repent and restart.
You could look at what has happened and rejoice at the undeniable story of an imaginative, courageous republic battling and contesting its soul and, grinding arm wrestle by grinding arm wrestle, with all of the inelegance of the messy business of human interaction, winning.
Mr Trump has lost. Of course, he has a legacy (more of that in a moment).
But it has turned out that, by some reasonable margin of comfort and legitimacy, he has been replaced by a team that has every chance of rescuing the experiment at its best and, in the process, making sure the damage of the last four years need not be permanent.
And make no mistake, much damage has been done. Anyone who has watched this affecting outpouring from CNN’s Van Jones will see and feel that pain.
But it isn’t irreparable.
Much misery has been endured in horribly unequal struggles of unfairness and some of the most abject denials of human rights and the absence of even a modicum of fucking decency that have been experienced anywhere.
The fact that much of the energy and momentum behind some of this didn’t just appear with the Trump disruption – that he is at least as much a symptom as he is a reckless accelerant – doesn’t change the basic point. This hasn’t been nice, it hasn’t been good and it hasn’t been fair for far too many people for far too long.
But this election has seen ordinary people, including ones we don’t agree with or like, use the very processes of democracy that are under threat to wrestle this thing to an honourable and convincing answer. We shouldn’t expect it to be all neat and simple and glorious soundtracks.
But more people turned out for over 100 years to vote and didn’t take to the streets and spill blood – although there’s been too much of that too of course. Instead, they queued and struggled through ever obstacle to insist they be heard and counted.
Despite the worst efforts of those whose instincts banal evil tried to wrench it all away from them, decent, ordinary people and decent, hardworking public servants stuck to the job and got the job done and will now live with the consequences of the work they have quietly and courageously done.
This is, in the end, how republics sometimes have to contest for their soul.
For sure it has been too much work and too much blood and sweat and tears and of course it metes out pain and suffering to too many, unequally and unfairly.
And of course, no republic can keep arm wrestling with this brutal, existential intensity and lack of care from those who lead. The US – and frankly most of the countries we live in face contests that are similar if not always so bruising – needs to stop and breathe.
The republic is still standing, its toughest and deepest institutions and reflexes worked, painfully for many but they worked. In the process, they have offered the country, and all of us, an invitation to start over and do better. Which is what they were designed to do.
I am working to stay focused on hope. It’s hard because it is so raw and the wounds so open, some of them wilfully exploited by people, including Mr Trump and his family and the deeply disappointing people like Mitch McConnell and many others who should fucking know better.
Tested as it hasn’t been for quite some time, perhaps the republic has met, as the President-elect suggested, one of those inflexion points where better beckons.
American needn’t be a country divided beyond the willingness to talk and treat. Take a look at this work on “strange bedfellows” from Public Agenda, patiently mapping projects that challenge “the increasingly dominant narrative of a hopelessly-divided America through research, journalism, public engagement and storytelling that elevates the areas where Americans agree on solutions to contentious issues, and by fostering productive dialogue on those areas where we truly disagree.”
The poison can be drawn, the wounds treated and the work begun. It’s a choice. And the country’s institutions have wrought that opportunity.
That is their gift, the gift they were designed to offer. Should it occur to enough people to do something good with that gift, there’s areal risk this could work, this moment could turn and climb back up the hill.
From what I have seen thus far, the Biden/Harris team is inclined to accept that gift. Which is a wonderful thing,
The biggest risk now is to give in to the sugar hit of triumphalism and dancing on the grave of the vanquished. In the heat of victory, perhaps it’s both understandable and predictable, but unattractive and counterproductive (as I suspect Joe Biden knows well).
The fact that 70 million and more Americans felt moved to give their vote to the former President is not a fact to be tossed lightly into the bonfire of ridicule and disgust. That would be a mistake.
In the US as in many western democracies, Australia included, we give citizens the equivalent of a very blunt block of wood and invite them, once every few years, to express the totality of their desires, frustrations and aspirations with one crude hit.
That means you have to be careful about what that “hit” – the way they decide to vote – really means.
In some cases, it means that good people simply have a different view to ours about the mix of policies and positions they think are best for them and their country. In some cases, it might be altogether less elevated, fired by prejudice ad hate. For most, though,, the vote is a proxy for a tangle of fears and frustrations and inarticulate hopes that bear intelligent interrogation with as much empathy and understanding as we can muster.
The fact that 70 million voted Trump isn’t cause for ridicule or a kind of sniffy, superior sneer.
Why did they do it and, more to the point, what can be done to create or shift conditions which gave rise to the decision to wield their crude piece of wood they way they did?
So here’s four things the new team in the White House need to do in the next four years:
Spend more time thinking about, talking to and working with at least a fair chunk of the 70 million Trump “supporters” than they do with their own tribe.
In the process, work out the extent to which their own side is complicit in the rise of the Trump effect and what practically they must do about it. As Mr Biden will recall perhaps better than most, Jesus came into the world to save sinners, not to make the complacent and self-satisfied feel even better about themselves. It’s hard work, tending to sinners. But this is at least part of Mr Biden’s vocation at this late stage of his long career,
The measure of success is that, in four years’ time, a fair few of those people might think twice before wielding their piece of wood in favour of someone offering the same mix of lies, bluster and wilful corruption as Mr Trump (notwithstanding that, like anyone with the levers of policy and power, some things are done that people are genuinely, and legitimately happy about).
Rescue and repair, carefully and generously, the many institutions and practices of public purpose and the common good, including the civil service, that have been wilfully damaged and taken down, not just in the last four years but, in some cases, for longer.
Attend to the culture, values and practices of racism, inequality and unfairness that have riven the US for too long – and, it might be admitted, countries like Australia too – and start the long and difficult business of infusing a practical and imaginative sense of reconciliation and respect into American’s heart, head and hands.
Urgently and with deft conviction and determined action, tackle the three interdependent agendas of renewal that now wait for the attention of leaders and communities across the world especially in the wake of the pandemic – “commerce” (a strong, sustainable, fair economy), “climate” (eliding the science of climate change to a stringent combination of imagination, leadership and action) and “care” (renovating old and in some cases inventing new ways to think, plan, invest in and do the work of care, connection and our regard for others and the fabric of a common purpose from which we all get an equal chance of living our best lives).
That is their mission, that is our collective and individual mission, should we choose to accept it.