An election that fits the American story

Influences on the 2020 vote began deep in a society that rejuvenates itself.

A flag-store owner in Jackson, Miss., shows off a proposed design for a new state flag.

Americans have just endured the longest presidential race in history. It began 1,386 days ago when President Donald Trump filed for reelection a few hours after taking the oath of office. He was later joined by three more Republicans and 28 Democrats – the largest and most diverse field of candidates ever. Then a pandemic disrupted the campaign and led to nearly 100 million voters casting early ballots. After all of that, Americans might welcome a pause to put this chapter of their story as a people into larger context.

The American story, writes historian Walter McDougall, has always been “chock-full of cruelty and love, hypocrisy and faith, cowardice and courage, plus no small measure of tongue-in-cheek humor.” By nature, this society is restless, always reinventing and rejuvenating itself.

Much of the world has awaited this election and the change it might bring. Yet change has already come. One stirring in the 2020 election began seven years ago. On July 13, 2013, a self-appointed security guard who shot a Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin was acquitted. That prompted Alicia Garza, a community organizer in Oakland, California, to tap out these words on Facebook: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Her post galvanized a movement that has broken through America’s long stalemate over racism.

Critics of Black Lives Matter see its desire for police reform as a call for anarchy. Philadelphia 76ers basketball coach Doc Rivers captured the mood of the Black-led movement differently: “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

Another reinvention happened in the South. For over a century, the region justified Confederate symbols as benign tributes to a tradition and culture. This year, that anodyne narrative collapsed in the face of sustained protests for racial equality. Statues fell. Mississippi came up with designs for a new flag celebrating unity over division.

Other ways to interpret this moment are in quieter places. Over the past decade, as the social justice movement gathered momentum, a new generation of classically trained musicians has been at work reclaiming the buried traditions of Black string-band music. That terrain is no less problematic. Minstrel music is the root of so much of American performative art, but it is also a deep reservoir of racism. White performers turned the music of enslaved people into a black-faced vaudeville of ridicule. Rescuing that music has been a project of both joy and pain.

As if to emphasize the common cause between the marches and the music, the Smithsonian re-released an album last month by Leyla McCalla. The young singer of Haitian descent has interpreted the poetry of Langston Hughes. With banjo in hand she sings, “My life ain’t nothin’ / But a lot o’ Gawd-knows what / Just one thing after ’nother / Added to de trouble that I got.” The music, she told Time, “is a chance to tell stories that have not been talked about enough.”

After the 2016 election, satirist Jon Stewart noted that the United States is still “the same country, with all its grace and flaws and volatility and insecurity and strength and resilience.” That is still true. For a nation conceived to set free the human spirit – not just born of revolution, Professor McDougall argues, but as a revolution in itself – the pursuit of new national narratives endures. The pursuit requires equanimity, dignity, and grace, which are the traits equally necessary for a restless people reimagining themselves.

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