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How Do You Fix the Soul of the Nation?

Even after we know the initial result of the US elections sometime in the coming days, there is no way we can anticipate the aftermath.
Peter Isackson, US election news, US election 2020, US election analysis, US election results, Donald Trump victory announcement, can Joe Biden still win, Trump Biden tie, US election latest news, soul of the US nation

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November 04, 2020 05:40 EDT

Nearly every commentator knew that the one certain thing about this presidential election was that everything that followed the date of voting would be uncertain. Inspired by polls that had consistently given Joe Biden a significant lead over the past two or three months, some predicted a Democratic landslide. But in that eventuality, the same commentators felt uncertain about how the transition would play out and, more seriously, how the nation might be governed. Some pundits even wondered whether it could be governed.

On Monday, The New York Times published an article with the title “Undeterred by Pandemic, Americans Prepare to Deliver Verdict on Trump.” The author, Shane Goldmacher, summed up the atmosphere of the final phase of the campaign in these terms: “As Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. raced across the most important battleground states in a frenzied final push for votes, the 2020 election was unfolding in a country with urgent problems: an uncontrolled public health crisis, a battered economy, deep ideological divisions, a national reckoning on race and uncertainty about whether the outcome of the vote will be disputed.”

After the US Election, Will Civil War Become the Fashion?


The Times’ columnist Lisa Lerer, who had consistently manifested her preference for Biden throughout the campaign, published an article on election eve with the title: “Win or Lose, Trump and Biden’s Parties Will Plunge Into Uncertainty.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


The permanent state of democracy in the United States since the beginning of the 21st century, likely to continue for decades to come.

Contextual Note

On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump predictably claimed victory, well before all the votes had been counted. More realistically, Business Insider summed up the continuing uncertainty. Publishing their live results, Grace Panetta and Madison Hall concluded — with what Democrats will see as a ray of hope — that “it remains unclear how the race will go, and there are more scenarios in which Biden ultimately wins than Trump.” 

The one thing most Americans were not hoping for in this age of ever-deepening uncertainty was “more scenarios.” In a nation that has become accustomed over the past four years to living through a screenplay scripted by a former reality TV host, polls leading up to the election appeared to reflect a desire for some sort of stability. Citing pre-election polling, Emily Badger in another Times article noted that “voters on the left and right say they’re concerned about the stability of American democracy.” She quotes a Biden supporter in Ohio, a state Trump appears now to have won, who expressed her fears in these terms: “We’re just teetering, and it’s scary as all get-out.”

During a bitter and confused primary campaign, the Democratic Party claimed to have identified the personality who best represented stability and electability: Joe Biden. Whether the former vice president eventually makes it past the Electoral College by the December deadline remains to be seen. If he wins, the Democrats will tout his victory as a triumph for stability, but the nation may not agree. As the Democrats congratulate themselves on their good judgment, the rest of the country, and especially its youth, may instead see the future as “scary as all get-out.”

Goldmacher’s article in The Times paints a grim picture of the immediate future. “Much of the country felt on edge,” he writes, before quoting a construction worker in Los Angeles whom he describes as busily boarding up a storefront in anticipation of serious civil unrest: “Everyone is starting to panic,” the worker explains.

Even after we know the initial result sometime in the coming days, there is no way we can anticipate the aftermath. Will there be lawsuits, protests, recounts, further manipulations, proposals for constitutional amendments or outright civil war? Will the millions of lethal weapons people have been stocking in preparation for conflict be put to use?

In contrast, David Dayan makes the astonishing claim that “Donald Trump Has Been Good for Democracy.” The basis of his claim is that millions of Americans formerly indifferent have become politically engaged, and not just in voting, though on that score the statistics do tell the story of record voter turnout. Most commentators thought high turnout would be an advantage for Biden. It appears not to have been the case.

Historical Note

On the eve of the election, in an article on the fragility of the American nation, Fair Observer’s founder Atul Singh riffed on a pair of metaphors for the current state not just of US politics, but of the country as a whole. The first was the idea of a nation held together with string. The second was the slogan Joe Biden repeatedly used as a drumbeat since the beginning of his campaign, his oft-repeated claim that the election was a “fight for the soul of the nation.” Upon close examination, these two metaphors appear to be antinomic to the point of tragic contradiction. Their antinomy sums up the existential quandary that this election has revealed.

In the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition of philosophy, the idea of the soul was synonymous with essence. It designated the metaphysical principle that accounted for the identity of any entity, animate or inanimate. The essence or soul defined and united all of an entity’s diverse constituents. An essence thus signifies the presence of an active force — the soul — that ensures the integrity of a thing or a person.

Even a chair or a shoe, or any other human artifact, can have a soul or essence, though in contrast with living things, their integrity is imposed and ensured from the outside — from the mind of the designer or manufacturer — rather than materialized by the action of dynamic organic principles within the object itself. The DNA of a chair, or a nation for that matter, lies in the mind of those who gave its identity and who are committed to maintaining it.

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If we describe something that needs to be held together with string — a chair for example — it indicates that its essence is no longer present, at least as a sufficient active force to maintain its integrity and fulfill its purpose. At some point, we can decide to dismantle the chair and use it as firewood. At best the string may prolong its useful life span, but that in itself is an admission of the absence of its “soul.”

Joe Biden clearly would not agree with Atul Singh’s description of a nation being held together with string. Were he interested in framing his opposition in philosophical terms, he might appeal to a form of Cartesian dualism and claim that an essence that has fled may return or perhaps may be reinjected because the soul and the body are distinct and autonomous. But the source of Biden’s rhetoric is more likely the popular moral dualism children learn in Catechism of angels and devils fighting for the control of everyman’s (or every child’s) soul.

As a politician, Biden quite logically sees every issue as one of deciding who is in control. If he is effectively declared president by the Electoral College — and if that election is not overturned by Donald Trump’s Supreme Court — the problem he will face when he takes office will be how to control an omnipresent entity that politicians like Biden prefer to deny: uncertainty. Emily Badger concluded her article with a quote from Yale historian Beverly Gage: “If people have actually lost faith in the idea that you can fix things and make them better, then that’s not a great political moment to be in.” Especially when the thing you most want to fix is “the soul of the nation.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer. Editor’s Note: At the time of publication, the US election is still too close to call.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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