May 22, 2024

In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start

A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.
A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.

SOMERSET, KY. — A story of leadership and poise emerged on Wednesday night after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It is a lesson with lasting value to our national life.

The Cleveland Indians scored three runs in the bottom of the 8th inning to tie the game. Momentum had veered to the home team. To a man, the Cubs were rattled. Some said they were finding it hard to breathe.

At the end of the ninth inning, with the score tied 6-6 in a knuckle-reddening thriller, groundskeepers unrolled a big white tarp to prevent the infield from becoming inundated by an approaching storm. Cubs believe the rain and the short game delay were a divine intervention.

While waiting for play to resume, Jason Heyward, the Cubs’ right fielder, felt the sharp blades of fate and tension swiping at his team’s confidence. He guided his teammates into a tiny weight room off the main clubhouse to say something simple and powerful enough to settle them. Heyward spoke from his heart.

“Where’s that fire we’ve had all year?” he said. “Fight for your brothers!”

“I just wanted them to remember how good they were, how good we are,” Heyward told reporters. “Know how proud of them I was and that I loved them. That I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I don’t need to take any credit for anything. I just love them so much that, win or lose, I would hate to see them not be themselves.”

Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward

Oh that someone would emerge to deliver a Jason Heyward-like message of calm and assurance to this rattled nation. Five days before a destabilizing national election full of hate and lies and aberrant behavior, the United States could use a big group hug, and a trusted voice of reason. Half the country, it appears, wants to blow up the existing order. The other half fears they could. The race has reached a state of intransigence, a brawl over opposing values and principles every bit as pitched as that 6-6 ninth inning score.

Unlike a national championship baseball game, where both sides commend each other and accept the outcome, this national election displays no element of sportsmanship. Whatever happens on November 8, the election results are almost certain to widen the divisions and stoke the flames of disrespect, indecency, and incivility.

I have my own unified theory of why the United States retreated into this dangerous psychic and spiritual “episode.” Its causes, just like in a psychotic breakdown, were already housed in our national body politic. We’re a fierce, proud, defiant people. Our ideas about what’s good and just and right are as varied as the religious values we hold dear, the region where we were raised, our race, education, and social connections. When we’re stressed, particularly when we’re bullied by economic losses and financial instability, the country has a tendency to break out in frightening episodes.

The Civil War is the most prominent case in point. The South’s willingness to defend its unjust economic system based on agriculture and slavery led to a terrible war. Half a century later, the government’s allegiance to big business and low wages led to widespread deaths in the nation’s coal fields, textile mills, and factories. Workers, campaigning for union rights and higher wages, were gunned down by police and security forces. In the 1960s, the same sort of class and racial hostility that drives supporters of Donald Trump emerged on college campuses and in the cities of the South. Students at Kent State and Jackson State, considered elites and un-American, were killed by working class National Guardsmen. Police and Deep South politicians attacked Civil Rights campaigners seeking economic and social justice.

The 2016 presidential election, and the gun-related racial violence that accompanies it, is another national episode. The roots of this psychotic event, like the others, are lodged in economic dislocation and managerial ineptitude. The turn-of-the-century transition that has produced unstable economic markets and dangerous ecological conditions proved too complex for America’s national managers to handle. Politics, always a contest between competing ideas, quickly evolved to the absurd and dangerous promotion of division and mistrust.

One party embraced government shutdown and lies to pursue illogical outcomes such as liberals will take away your guns, reducing taxes will fix the deficit, and “drill baby drill” because climate change is a hoax. The other party turned timid, and forgot what it stood for. It ignored its working middle class base, recruited urban elites and Silicon Valley, and lured minorities and foodies and greenies with hopes for change.

The moment, and this election, feel more berserk than any of the other psychotic national events of my lifetime because they are. The nation’s political cartography describes one part of the problem. America’s thriving and self-interested big blue cities are isolated, besieged by the economically and culturally tormented residents of the vast suburban and rural lands that surround them.

The gout of blood spilled over the last 18 months tells a second part of the story. African Americans and police and office workers and mall shoppers and nightclub dancers and students are steadily gunned down in a weekly murderous rage that has become routine.

The apocalyptic presidential race, vicious and deflating, is the third part. The election is like the Alien monster that bursts from the belly of a struggling beast. A billionaire businessman with no political experience, an erratic temperament, and a groping libido that knows no restraint, is closing in on the presidency. A woman with decades of experience, and an expert’s knowledge of government and governing, confronts a party and a police force determined to impede her by blowing up an email issue that isn’t all that important.

Even if Hillary Clinton wins on Tuesday, which I suspect she will, the country’s path to renewal and order will still be blocked by impassable obstacles if the white tarp isn’t rolled out to keep the nation from drowning, and no one steps forward to encourage a group hug. It will take mammoth changes in practices and investments — in energy, transportation, education, food production, housing, and security — to position the United States to succeed in this century. The country has to align its economic goals to contend with unyielding ecological and demographic risks. Climate change, exploding populations, and socially activated communities fighting to better their lives are national and global trends that cannot be ignored.

Wednesday night Jason Heyward spoke up to calm down his Cubs teammates. Can either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump do the same for America? Is either capable of convincing Americans that a pivot toward a new way of conducting themselves and the nation’s business is absolutely necessary? Will Congress participate in any meaningful way?

On Tuesday one national episode ends. Another starts the next day.

— Keith Schneider

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