Analysis & Comment

Opinion | We Can Settle This Peacefully or Return to Our Shameful Past

My people are wringing their hands and tearing their hair out over the early presidential election returns: How could it be so close?

After all we’ve been through, with the lying and the white nationalists and the children in cages and the 230,000-plus dead from Covid-19, how could this election be so close as still to be unresolved? How could tens of millions of our fellow citizens still have voted for Mr. Trump?

I don’t know, though I nod along with some of the guesses: white resentment, evangelical Christianity, macho-masculinity, anti-abortion, the fate of retirement accounts and restaurant jobs.

This question and its possible answers were not upmost in my mind’s eye, for I focused on images of voters, of all political beliefs, queuing up in circumstances as varied as rain in Georgia, cold in Montana and heat in Arizona. Older people with their walkers standing patiently for hours. Indigenous Americans on horseback riding 10 miles to vote. Parents, their kids on their shoulders. Lines stretching for blocks, nearly as long as the lines of cars at food pantries a few months ago. The vertical shapes of Americans standing in wait to vote one after another, in their masks and, for the most part, socially distanced. An estimated 100 million voters cast their votes early, with rounds of applause often greeting first-time voters.

These images of this U.S. election seemed familiar to me, but foreign, recalling other elections in other places, such as South Africa in 1994 at the ending of apartheid. South Africans stood with stunning patience, outdoors in the elements, as though voting expressed an existential need that overrode bodily comfort.

What was I witnessing now? Americans in 2020 re-enacting the South African voters of 1994?

In my visual imagination, images of such determined voters come mostly from other places. The important exceptions are Southern — the American South in the 1960s, where Black voters stood in bunched-up lines in Birmingham and Selma, Ala., to cast votes after the bloody, yearslong campaign for civil rights and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In serried ranks, the opposite of our Covid-19 distancing, they squeezed into newly accessible civic spaces.

The American historian in me can reach farther back to envision determined voting, to Reconstruction, to the image on the cover of Harper’s Weekly of November 1867, with A. R. Waud’s illustration of Black men lined up to deposit ballots into partisan urns.

At the front of the line stands an old graybeard in ragged clothing, workingmen’s tools in his pocket. He is dark-skinned, evidently formerly enslaved. Behind him stands a light-skinned dandy in curls and cravat, and behind him, a decorated Union soldier. These three lead a line of voters of varied classes and darkness of skin.

This Harper’s image used to seem so timebound to me, so clearly belonging, with the 1960s images, to our American past, for the United States is not like that. The United States is exceptional.

The congratulatory notion of American exceptionalism doesn’t usually tempt me. There’s just too much bloodshed and anti-democracy to make me think that Americans somehow avoided the perils of class conflict and hereditary aristocracy. What is white supremacy if not a hereditary aristocracy based on the ideology of race?

Nonetheless, I take pride in what my fellow Americans have now pulled off, so far at least. An upwelling of faith in the epitome of citizenship, voting.

Despite the erection of walls around businesses and even the White House, this election and its reckoning are unrolling peacefully. This is not to be taken for granted in the world we live in. Other countries routinely experience political violence. In the United States, we don’t expect that, and our exemption is not to be taken for granted. Americans should be proud of the marvel of peaceable elections.

I realize that quoting a taxi driver is a tired journalistic trope, but let me share the observation of my most memorable taxi driver, who was taking me home in the fall of 2000.

He was listening to “All Things Considered” and said he was following the outcome of the presidential election, whose settlement in Florida seemed interminable to us both. The driver, who was new to America, was following this story with admiration, struck as he was by its character, its lack of resorts to arms.

I hadn’t thought of it that way, having taken for granted this feature of American democracy.

But what about now? As I write, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election has not been determined. People are afraid. Walls have gone up. Some are rattling their automatic weapons and telegraphing their readiness to take to the streets. Will our exemption from fear hold? Or will these armed protesters — like those invading the Michigan State Capitol in April, May and September — waving Confederate flags reappear? Will those advised to stand down no longer stand back?

So far, we remain within my taxi driver’s scenario of settlement according to law. But much depends upon leadership. As I write, President Trump has falsely claimed victory, cited voter fraud and promised legal challenges to official state results.

A wink toward Proud Boys and Boogaloos might well end this current run of American exceptionalism and take us back not only to the practices of other less democratic countries, but also to our own shameful past of violent disfranchisement.

Nell Irvin Painter is a professor emeritus of history at Princeton University and the author of “The History of White People.”

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