No matter who is president-elect when we wake up Wednesday, we and our children and grandchildren must figure out how to recover something precious that all of us have lost.
How either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton handles the presidency is of enormous consequence, of course, but equally crucial to the future of our democracy is how Americans handle the fact that one of two deeply disliked and mortally feared candidates won and one of them lost the most bitter, lie-driven and venal campaign in living memory.
For reasons illustrated by that campaign, neither a President Trump nor a President Clinton can deliver on their promises and aspirations, and their relentless personal attacks have made both incapable of fostering national reconciliation.
Who, then, can “bind up the wounds” resulting from the deepest national schism since the Civil War?
Certainly not the hundreds of people we are electing today, because all of politics has become a zero sum game in which opposing sides define every issue at the extreme that best suits their needs, perpetuating distance rather than reducing it. The political system cannot right itself because the self-correcting dynamic of compromise no longer exists within it.
Reflecting that chasm, too much of our social, civic and even personal lives have become politics-free zones. The instinct of ordinary people is to talk with other ordinary people about shared concerns and how to deal with them (the essence of politics), but this decade of division makes such conversations, whether casual or important, too risky and unsatisfactory for the office or school corridor or the bus stop or even the family dinner table.
Reflecting that chasm, our abuse of social media has turned the exchange of competing ideas into a blood sport executed with anger, hatred and verbal violence.
Repelled or intimidated by the culture of division and hostility, most Americans leave politics exclusively to a political class that has neither the incentive nor the ability to heal itself, much less heal the broader society.
So healing is up to us.
That means identifying shared concerns within our existing civic structures—for example business associations, churches, foundations, education, medicine—and calling upon the leaders of diverse and often competing elements within those sectors to expand their concept of leadership.
Because our greed-fueled, ideology-encrusted political system cannot effectively address those concerns, it’s up to the stakeholders and their leaders to cooperatively decide what best serves the diverse beliefs and needs of a given sector and present to politicians worked-through, resolved models of acceptable solutions.
Naïve? Probably. Impractical? Perhaps.
But believing that our political system can or will do that work is the ultimate naiveté.
In past moments of great peril to our democracy, we have come together under strong political leadership to accomplish extraordinary things, for instance in 1861 and 1939.
This time we must do it ourselves.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.