Reach out into darkness; come together, right now

Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of working together.

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SOURCENationofChange

As many of us, I assume, soar in the euphoric realms of joy over the defeat of Donald Trump, celebrate his having sulled up and gone into a permanent state of pout over his failure to marshal his minions to overturn the obvious, it is easy to forget a few grim facts.

In the recent election, approximately 150,000,000 votes were apparently cast nation-wide. This figure might grow or shrink slightly as the final tallies are rendered. The population of the U.S. is approximately 325,000,000. How many of the 175,000,000 were eligible to vote but didn’t hasn’t been estimated anywhere I can find, but the figure does suggest that possibly as many as 100,000,000 people were eligible to vote but didn’t. The point being that there is still a gap, and it probably is considerable, between those who are politically involved and those who are not. Even a tenth of that number could have swayed the election in the opposite direction and provided a clear mandate. 

More to the point, though, is the grim reminder that of those who did vote, some 70,000,000 people voted for Donald Trump. Far more than that voted Republican on the down-ballot elections for the House and Senate. Many state legislatures also retained their Republican advantage. What this indicates–and it is sobering–is that nearly (certainly a close enough figure to merit the adverb) as many people wanted Trump to stay in office as did not.  More wanted Republicans to have control of Congress. This is the principal challenge facing the incoming administration.

The operative question is why people would vote for Trump. There are those, of course, and their numbers are huge, who always vote Republican no matter what; there are those who were inspired or stimulated by Trump’s public rallies and personal appearances that touched their hearts in some way, however perverse; but there are also those whose professional or personal circumstances directly would benefit by retaining the present administration and its policies; but there are also those who are well-educated, well-informed, sophisticated individuals who chose to support Trump (and still do) for reasons only they can elucidate.

The bedrock issue facing Biden and his appointees and the House of Representatives, as well, assuming that the Democrats are unsuccessful in the Georgia runoff and cannot capture both open Senate seats, is what do these people want? What is their priority list? What measures proposed by the newly elected team of Democrats will they oppose? It’s a sure bet they will oppose most of them, and those that are forced through by rescinding executive orders or by the privilege of the presidential office itself will be met with resistance, greeted with resentment, and will form the building blocks of a solid wall of opposition that will stop progressive reform in its tracks. We very well could be looking at another four years of solid gridlock if the Senate continues to block legislation that would benefit the nation and restore the country to a forward movement in vital areas such as health care, climate change, race relations, abortion, tax reform, election reform, immigration, infrastructure attention, etc. More to the point, there will be resentment and resistance against a reinvolvement of the U.S. in such vital agencies as the Paris Climate Accord, the World Health Organization, the Iranian Nuclear Treaty, the Pacific Trade Agreement, NATO, just to name a few key programs Trump has either withdrawn from or was planning to. Foreign relations with many Central and South American countries will have to be on the table; so will relations with Cuba, Russia, China, and several other nations. Dynamic change in these areas is doubtlessly coming; like just over 70,000,000 people, I applaud that. But I remind myself that just about 70,000,000 people strongly oppose all or at least most of it, as well. The dividing line is clear.

From where I sit, little will be accomplished by attempting to shove these changes (positive though they apparently are) down the throats of the American electorate, whether they want them or not. In my opinion, they have to be done, most of them, anyway, not only to appease the Democratic majority (thin as it is) as well as the extreme progressives, but also to right a ship of state that has been severely listing for four years. When your vessel is down at the bow and sinking, drastic measures are called for, without question, and they have to be implemented suddenly and forcefully.

Still, forcing such steps onto people who fundamentally oppose them for whatever reasons will not answer; it will only create a greater divide, more entrenched positions, and will set the stage for yet another overturning of political leadership in four short years. It could also stimulate a violent and marginally if not openly seditious reaction among extreme groups who do not think but only react. If certain hot-button issues such as gun control or abortion availability or changes in reaction to what many of them perceive as anti-patriotic gestures, then violent response can be anticipated. The remedy for this is to defuse it, not combat it directly. Democrats are not gun-toting street fighters, as a rule. Indeed, they’re too disorganized and internally divided to form even a small militia. They just don’t reach for their guns and their Bibles when controversy erupts. They tend to reach, instead, for bullhorns and poster board. 

The musical rock-opera Evita reminds us that “Politics is the art of the possible.” Nothing that Biden and his team and supporters, right down to the lowliest of those who voted for him (which includes a healthy number of conservatives who saw Trump as evil but who remain Republican in their political thinking and outlook), can do or try to do will matter if all of it is reversed after 2024, something that is a likely possibility depending on who the GOP advances as their new conservative hero. The time is now, in my opinion, to start selling the liberal agenda to the American public with both verve and passion, with clear explanations and cogent arguments that move everyone, regardless of his or her political perspective, toward an enthusiastic acceptance and welcoming of positive change.

It would not be too much to demand that Biden, notoriously mush-mouthed and prone to misstatements and gaffs, appoint an “Explanation Czar” to clarify his reasons for actions to the public, to go before the press daily and explain in clear and concrete articulation what the hell’s going on, the motivations behind actions, the anticipated goals, and the benefits that can be derived from them for everyone. Biden needs to rely on hard prognostications and expectations, not on vague promises and abstract hopes. (Instead, for example, of simply saying that reducing carbon emissions and moving toward a greener and renewable energy source will create jobs, outline where those jobs will be–in what industries, which ones, in what parts of the country and when they’ll be realized.) 

Certain issues–a woman’s right to choose, for example, or increased regulation over firearms sales–are not subject to compromise from the Democratic perspective. But these can be softly sold, packaged with more positive moves that will soften their impact. Think of it like the flavoring added to a child’s medicine to make it easier to get them to take, a “sugar-coated pill,” in Swiftian language. Issues such as student loan defaults, educational costs, health care costs, health insurance, and so forth have to be promoted with the right language, or they will be met by resistance and hostility by the residual Trump supporters who will remain as they are for a long time to come and will greet many reforms as nothing more than giveaways to the undeserving.

The key here is “persuasion,” not force. Running roughshod over deeply embedded objections and ignoring the consequences of actions will not answer. (If one reduces or eliminates coal as an energy source, for example, then all those whose jobs are tied to the coal industry need to be assured in concrete and realistic ways that they will not be left to starve. No one can realistically expect a 52-year-old coal miner with a high school education and a family to feed to retool for a position in high tech. He lives in a state with a low literacy rate and high poverty rate, already. Does he imagine himself moving to Palo Alto and taking a job with Google to start peddling solar panels door-to-door? He might not even own a cordless phone, let alone a computer. Idealism will not sell to these people. This is what Franklin Roosevelt understood and that Joe Biden has to learn and use. FDR’s “Fireside Chats” sold The New Deal to America. Biden needs a similar conduit for communication, or someone the nation admires and trusts needs to be out front to do it for him.) 

At the moment, of course, all attention is focused on the pandemic. And Trump’s bungling of it had more to do with Biden’s election than any other issue. Upwards of half a million dead could be coming. This was assumed as unavoidably fatalistic in 1916; it’s unthinkable in 2020. If the proposed vaccines do come, and if they’re effective, and if they last–all big ifs at this stage of the game–a gradual easing of restrictions will take place, of course, and these other issues will move to the front of the line of public concern. The time to act, though, is now. Biden and his party, which hopefully will present a reasonable amount of coalition-image at least, must move now to begin to convert the counter-converted, to bring enlightenment to the darkness of Trump’s support base. They need to push the fringe fantatics back into the dark margins of society, get them out of the spotlight, marginalize them and bring out the vast majority of people who are, though often misguidedly so, innately patriotic, law-abiding, honest, and caring individuals, but whose perspective has been somehow warped by the misinformation and disinformation that has been generated by the Trump machine and broadcast via media dedicated to that false narrative. 

A new narrative, in short, has to evolve, and a new media image has to emerge. We have heard well enough about “fake news,” about slanted reporting, about propaganda, about the “lame-stream media,” etc. The Fourth Estate has to remake its own image. (I would suggest that the three major networks and CNN and FOX News, as well, cease taking advertising dollars at least in the amounts they do to support their daily news broadcasts. News Broadcasts need to be clearly separated from reports of hard facts to editorial commentary, with the latter being commercially supported, but the former being offered as a public service. That’s a pipedream, I know, but it’s the way broadcast news was sixty or seventy years ago, and there’s no reason why these multi-billion dollar corporations cannot afford to return to it, at least in part.) It has to become “trusted,” and reliable, again. Editorial opinion is always welcome, and it should be out front and featured. But the “slants” of all news reporting are clear to discern. This is why clarity and honesty and direct communication must be restored; lies, fabrications, evasions, equivocations, manufactured facts, altered realities must be discarded like so much baggage and useless ballast, however dear it may be to the endangered crew or passengers. This is the only way forward if we want to right this ship.

The 70,000,000 or so people who voted for Trump do not want us to restore our role as world leader; they like the idea of America First and Alone, unencumbered by commitments that will harm our economy, our military, or our security. They want the creation of a vision of America such as that imagined (out of thin air) by Ronald Reagan, not one that was created (out of grim reality) by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. They want the vision of John Kennedy–anti-communist, anti-negativity, forward thinking about the glory of the country, not about its entanglements in harmful agreements and commitments. They are in favor of such things as more drilling in National Parks and wilderness areas, fewer restrictions on carbon emissions, lower taxes, less welfare, clear delineations between genders, protection of life and property, law and order, an assurance that simply because they are born to a particular race or to a particular economic status they are safe and secure and have the chance to achieve their own potential, and an upholding of individual rights without interference by a federal government. These are old arguments. They will not fade away as Biden takes the oath of office; if anything, they will re-entrench, double down on their resistance, and openly oppose changes that are implemented for the good of all if they seem harmful to the individual. They do not see “the common good” as a higher priority than personal rights. As I say, these are old arguments. They have existed since the 1780s, have flared into bloody conflict in the 1860s, again in the 1960s, and once more are the basis for potential violence and resistance down the line and across the board.

Intellectuals will understand that the only remedy for this, the only way to calm the waters and right the ship is through cogent and effective communication. But as rhetoricians have reminded us since Aristotle, communication is a two-way process. Messages not only have to be transmitted; they have to be received–and understood. Only then can we realize a meeting of minds, a place where we don’t necessarily agree but where we at least understand one another, without ad hominem condemnation and labeling, without acrimony and truculence, but with an eye toward cooperation and the seeking of compromise. It’s an ambitious goal, maybe even an impossible one to achieve, but in the spirit of the collective genius that formed this nation, we have an obligation to strive toward it. We must, in short, come to understand one another. We must listen, not just talk.

Now, then, is not the time for gloating or flaunting our prowess. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of working together. It’s the only hope we have. In a different context, the matter was summed up by a quote from Ben Franklin. When asked if it was necessary for all members of the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence, particularly those who still had objections to parts or even all of it, but who acceded to the majority vote approving it, he replied, “I think we must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” 

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My background is that I am a well-published novelist, essayist, scholar, and literary critic, the author over 1,000 publications ranging from scholarly studies to short fiction and poems, essays, critical reviews and twenty published volumes, including nine novels and a collection of short fiction. I am recently retired after serving as Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, where I also served as Director of Creative Writing. I hold academic degrees from the University of Texas at Austin, Trinity University, and a PhD from the University of Tulsa. My published novels include The Vigil, Agatite, Franklin's Crossing, Players, Monuments, and The Tentmaker, Ars Poetica: A Post-Modern Parable, Vox Populi: A Novel of Everyday Life, and Threading the Needle; I also have published a collection of essays, Of Snakes and Sex and Playing in the Rain, and a collection of short fiction, Sandhill County Lines. My nonfiction books, authored and edited, include Stage Left: The Development of the American Social Drama, Taking Stock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook, A Hundred Years of Heroes: A Centennial History of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, Twenty Questions: Answers for the Inquiring Writer, The Plays of Jack London, and Hero of a Hundred Fights: The Western Dime Novels of Ned Buntline. My novels, short fiction, and essays have won numerous regional and national awards, including the Violet Crown Award, which I have has received twice for fiction, and theSpur Award for short fiction as well as the Spur Award for Creative Nonfiction; I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993; I am a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.

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