The US presidential election as a reflection of two Americas

By Mark A. Ashwill   November 8, 2020 | 10:32 pm PT
"There are two Americas."
Mark A. Ashwill

Mark A. Ashwill

"One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power."

These prophetic words, written by Senator J. William Fulbright in his 1966 book "The Arrogance of Power," are as true now as they were over half a century ago. They remain an apt description of U.S. national character and the ongoing struggle among U.S. Americans. A number of unresolved issues whose roots are deeply embedded in the country’s over four centuries of colonial and post-independence history played out in stunning fashion in the recent U.S. presidential election. President-elect Joe Biden accurately characterized his campaign as a "battle for the soul of the nation."

In spite of the corrupting influence of money (both candidates spent over $6.6 billion) and the inherent unfairness of the system (the U.S. has been classified as an oligarchy with extreme income and wealth inequality), the fact remains that average people have the same number of votes as billionaires and millionaires: one. Every four years they are on a level playing field once they cast their ballots for a new president.

The U.S. recorded the most votes ever in a presidential election and the highest percentage turnout in over a century. As of November 8, over 145 million votes had been cast for Joseph Biden and Donald Trump, 75,404,182 (50.7 percent) for the winner and 70,903,094 (47.7 percent) for the loser. The total percentage is expected to exceed 66 percent of all eligible voters.

Most importantly, Biden received more than 270 electoral votes, the number needed to catapult him into the White House. The Electoral College is an antiquated and obsolete system whereby each state’s electoral votes are equal to the number of U.S. senators plus members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The unholy trinity: racism, ignorance, and nationalism

From my perch in Hanoi, where I have lived for 15 years, I look back at the country in which I was born and raised and see more division and rancor than since the U.S. Civil War, which ended in 1865.

The racism that was the backbone of slavery, the main reason that war was fought, is alive and well in 2020 and the presidential election. Those who voted for a white nationalist in thought, word, and deed, are either racist themselves or willing to overlook that character flaw in him. The U.S.’s shift to a "minority white" country in 2045 will happen in spite of them.

The closeness of the election is a crystal clear indication of how bitterly divided U.S. Americans are. Two key and interrelated issues were the state of the U.S. economy and the Covid-19 pandemic. The spectacular failure of the current administration to contain Covid-19 is no secret nor is its devastating impact on the national economy.

On November 7, the day Biden defeated Trump, the U.S. recorded another 124,232 cases of Covid-19 and an additional 1,031 deaths for a total of over 10.1 million cases and 243,257 deaths. In spite of its unenviable status as the world leader in this category, the threat of the coronavirus was repeatedly trivialized with statements like "it’s totally under control," "it will all work out well," "it will disappear like a miracle," and the U.S. is "rounding the final turn" on Covid-19. Many supporters actually believe this lie because they have absolute faith in the incumbent. (As of early July 2020, he had made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims.)

People watch fireworks after media announced that Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden has won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S. November 7, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Mark Makela

People watch fireworks after media announced that Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden has won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 7, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Mark Makela.

This leads me to another burning issue, the fact that 130 million U.S. Americans, 54 percent of everyone between the ages of 16 and 74 and 40 percent of the population, are functionally illiterate. This was the conclusion of a report recently released by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and Gallup, Inc. People who are functionally illiterate cannot use reading, writing, and calculation skills for their own and their community’s development.

It’s one of a long list of reasons why so many U.S. Americans display their anti-intellectualism with pride rather than shame and who wholeheartedly embrace authoritarianism. Closer to home, it’s also a compelling reason why the 21st century is the #Asian Century.

My guess is that a lot of die-hard supporters of the incumbent, the non-college educated white people who believe everything he says and are apparently unable to think for themselves, are among the functionally illiterate. They aren’t knowledgeable about their own country, not to mention the rest of the world. These are the people Hillary Clinton said in 2016 belong in a "basket of deplorables" characterized by "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic" views.

Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and one of the country’s "Founding Fathers," wrote in a 1789 letter that "wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government." This has come to be interpreted as "a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy." With 40 percent of all of its citizens functionally illiterate, the U.S.’s much-vaunted democracy is at risk.

Finally, another issue that transcends party affiliation is nationalist sentiment, the heartfelt belief that the U.S. is "the greatest nation on earth," despite abundant and ubiquitous evidence to the contrary. Nationalism is a stumbling block to societal progress.The ideological blinders of its adherents prevent them from seeing societal problems and trying to solve them.

U.S. journalist Sydney J. Harris once referred to this particular ideology thus: "The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, ‘the greatest’, but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is."

By contrast, "Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues," Harris added. The U.S. desperately needs more patriots and more goodness. One can only hope that Biden and Harris can help move the country in that direction.

Chalk one up for Lincoln and Stevenson

President-elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris, and their administration have their work cut out for them. Their supporters, a majority of U.S. voters, solved one pressing problem. Some of the damage inflicted on the U.S., its people, and global perceptions of the U.S. can be undone overnight; most of it will take much longer to ameliorate.

For the time being, the U.S. and the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief. The America of Abraham Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson, the one that is generous and humane, self-critical, sensible, and inquiring, has scored a resounding victory.

*Mark A. Ashwill is an American and an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. The opinions expressed are his own.

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