My editors asked if I planned to write about the election this Sunday and I said yes. Perhaps they hoped I would pen something about the need to vote, a topic I’ve tackled before. But that seems unnecessary. Look at how many people have already voted. We all know the stakes in 2020. At this point, another column on why you should vote would be like bringing an extra trumpet to the walls of Jericho.
To be honest, I am less concerned with what we do Tuesday than what we do Wednesday, Thursday, and every day thereafter. My biggest fear isn’t who sits in the Oval Office come January; if the rest of us keep conducting ourselves the way we have been the last six months, it won’t make a difference.
We have all been behaving badly. I don’t mean every single American citizen, but I do mean wide swaths of us, in all states and in all walks of public life, politics, media, businesses, entertainment. We dog each other. We point fingers. Almost always these days, exaggeration is chosen over understatement. Anger over calm. Mean over kind.
We have more than taken sides in America. We have tunneled moats. In the name of “our way” we have demeaned, denigrated, destroyed. We’ve lost friends, alienated families, split our communities by lawn signs. We have hurt one another, emotionally and even sometimes physically. Yet far from looking at our guilty hands in regret, we continue to make fists and shake them across the great divide.
Is this who we want to be?
Let me start in my own backyard. The media. I used to be so proud of this business. I would defend it to any critic. I’d point to the need for an independent press as the only thing standing between big power and big money running rampant over the citizenry.
Now it seems we are running alongside them.
Some of us are even carrying their banners.
A desert of objectivity
The partisanship of the news has never been worse. Subtlety is a memory. Asking for balance brings an eye roll, as if asking an adult to finger paint.
Cable news has long been considered slanted, but there used to be an attempt to acknowledge another side. Not anymore. Fox News will regularly begin programs with reminders that you only have so many days left to vote for President Trump and a future, or Joe Biden and earthly destruction. Biden is mocked, referred to with nasty nicknames, and regularly derided for his age and cognitive abilities. In recent days, the Hunter Biden story either leads or is highly featured nightly.
Meanwhile, you can’t find that story on the CNN or MSNBC broadcasts. It doesn’t exist. Instead, those channels are more like WCVD radio, “All Coronvirus, All The Time.” Trump gets a nightly skewering, blamed for all of it. He is generally the focus and the blame for a large percentage of their stories and panels. Even the rare piece of positive data — i.e. last week’s report of record GDP growth for the third quarter — gets the “Yeah, but…” treatment on these networks. Snide asides and snarky criticisms are now woven into their dialogues.
This is bad behavior. It’s also bad, period, because so many Americans get their information from cable news.
The print media used to be different. It used to take pride in standing above such food fights.
Not anymore. In many places, print has abandoned even the pretense of objectivity. It’s very hard, for example, to read the Op-Ed sections of the New York Times or Washington Post and think you’re getting an evenly balanced chorus. (Thursday’s Times featured op-ed pieces with these titles: “How Trump Lowered America’s Standing in the World,” “Trump Killed the Pax Americana,” “Four Wasted Years Thinking About Donald Trump,” “Lies, Damned Lies and Trump Rallies” and, too rich for irony, “Five Great Things Joe Biden Has Already Done.”)
The Wall Street Journal — which leans decidedly in the opposite direction — ran an op-ed last week claiming those in charge of once-traditional newsrooms defend and protect Joe Biden “on the grounds that Donald Trump is a unique threat to democracy and that they have been forced to take commensurately unusual measures.”
If true, that’s the problem. We can’t throw out the rules of journalism because we feel it’s our moral imperative to replace one guy with another. Who put us in charge? Many in our business act as if we’re simply smarter than the common folk who vote, and it is therefore our duty to give those people what’s good for them.
When I watched the recent 60 Minutes interview with Trump — in which he evidenced more bad behavior by walking out before it was done — I took note of one question by the interviewer, Lesley Stahl. She asked, “Can you characterize your supporters?”
It struck me as odd. Would that be asked of Biden? It’s as if those who support the current president are a strange cult, a foreign herd with wacked-out beliefs, instead of nearly half the country based on the 2016 election. Then again, as a Midwesterner, it often seems that many coastal “experts” can’t grasp why anybody out here votes the way they do. That’s not journalistic curiosity. That’s hubris.
And more bad behavior.
Of course, we have plenty of inspiration from the politicians themselves. You can start with the president. There is no question his preening, his prevarication, his fast-and-loose-with-the-facts approach and his infatuation with putting people down is, by any measure, bad behavior. Heck, many of his supporters will admit that. He gathers masses with no COVID-19 concern. He lauds his staff members, then trashes them if they dare speak their mind. The Republican senators, congresspersons and governors behind him often seem to have taken a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil pact.
But if you think that makes his opponents holy, you’re not being fair. Joe Biden brags about his “transparency,” but he barked, “No they don’t,” when a reporter asked if the public had a right to know his stance on Supreme Court packing, and he remains radio silent about his son’s business dealings, carefully avoiding any situations where he might be asked a single question. Is that really being “transparent?”
As for decorum? Nancy Pelosi called the president “morbidly obese” and said he’s like a kid “with doggy doo on his shoes.” Chuck Schumer threatened Supreme Court justices, saying, “You won’t know what hit you.” Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, instead of casting a simple “nay” vote on Justice Amy Coney Barrett, marched to the table and declared, “Hell, no.” And for adopting two kids from impoverished Haiti, Barrett was likened to a “white colonizer” and her kids as “props” by a celebrated author and professor.
Are we proud to express ourselves that way? Is that admirable behavior?
The summer of protests saw many good people gathering to be heard. That’s our right, something to preserve. But the looting, burning, destruction and intimidation of innocent citizens was far too often excused or ignored because, once again, certain forces felt bad behavior, even violent behavior, was justified in the current ideological struggle.
Well, here’s some breaking news: the struggle isn’t going away. It won’t magically disappear on Tuesday night. We will eventually have a freshly elected president, but he’ll be presiding over the same nation, the same people, the same Congress, the same media and the same disagreements.
We have acted as if this is the first time liberal and conservative have clashed, the first time race or police have been issues, the first time we’ve faced a health pandemic. None of that is true. And all of these things will repeat themselves in the future. In fact, they’ll all still be here, smack in our face, come Wednesday morning.
How will we be any different?
A common refrain has been, “If Trump goes away, we’ll all go back to being nicer.” That’s naïve, like a 5-year-old pointing to his kid brother and saying, “He started it!”
Both sides have been behaving badly. And I fear we’ve gotten quite used to it. So when do we stop? The Republicans shoved through a Supreme Court justice because they had the power; now the Democrats threaten to pack the court if they have the power. Does that sound like a stop? Twitter and Facebook, who brazenly act as editors of their users’ viewpoints, aren’t getting any smaller. Where’s the stopping there? No matter who wins the White House, half the country will view it as Armageddon and vow to fight the oppressors.
Does that sound like an ending — or a beginning?
A recent poll showed three out of four Americans are concerned about violence on Election Day. City stores are being boarded up. Security is being strengthened near expensive properties. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills is literally shutting itself down Tuesday and Wednesday. Violence when we vote? Does that sound like America, or a revolution in some small, war-torn country halfway around the world?
We are stressed, locked down, haunted by a common enemy virus that should have united us but instead divided us further. The truth is, our future won’t be determined by who we choose to lead us this week. It will be determined by how we act after we do.
An American president, when he wakes up, doesn’t step off a cloud. He is a representative, nothing more. What will he represent? What will we represent? Think about the friends we’ve lost this election season. The neighbors we’ve alienated. Who will we be on Wednesday, Thursday and beyond?
I know this: If the winners gloat and the losers threaten, we won’t be any better than we’ve been the last six months. And does anyone really want the country of the last six months to be the country of the next four years?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.