America: Can a divided nation unify?

As of this writing the outcome from last week’s presidential election has resulted in a momentous victory for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. An intensely contested election campaign marked a 50-year high in the percentage of eligible voters who actually voted. An analysis by Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight website projects that the final tally will reflect that 81.8 million Americans voted for Biden, making him the largest vote getter in the history of American presidential elections. Silver forecasts that President Trump will receive approximately 74.9 million votes, making him the second-largest recipient of presidential ballots. 

The election is historic. Kamala Harris’ election as vice president is a historic first — she is the first African-American woman to be elected vice president, and her maternal heritage as a South Asian-American makes her ascension to America’s second highest office an amazing achievement.

Yet, in the elections it is impossible to escape the deep divisions that characterize the electorate and America itself.

The nation has been deeply polarized by this year’s election. While President-elect Biden has achieved a remarkable victory, a careful analysis of the election’s results reveals, as noted by George Packer of The Atlantic magazine, that “We are two countries, and neither of them is going to be conquered or disappear anytime soon.

“The outcome of the 2016 election was not a historical fluke or the result of foreign subversion, but a pretty accurate reflection of the American electorate. The much-discussed Democratic majority that’s been emerging since the turn of the millennium is still in a state of emergence and will keep on emerging for years to come. The will of the majority is indeed blocked by undemocratic rules and unscrupulous politicians, but it is a bare majority without enough numbers to govern.”

Last Saturday, at a victory celebration, Biden addressed the need to unify the country.

“I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States,” Biden said last Saturday night.

Many followers of President Trump stubbornly cling to the unlikely notion that he can reverse the Biden-Harris victory.

One prominent Trump supporter, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has said that it’s time to move on and accept the results of the election if claims of voter fraud cannot be proven with objective evidence.

“I’ve been a friend of President Trump’s for twenty years,” Christie said on ABC News’ “This Week.” “Friendship doesn’t mean you’re blind. Friendship means that you will listen to somebody to give them their opportunity, and if they don’t come forward with proof, then it’s time to move forward.”

“Both the Republican and Democratic parties have partisans who would divide the nation.

“For now, President Trump has failed to follow the examples of Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, who graciously conceded their defeats to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and cooperated in a peaceful transition of power.”

This year’s election marks another intensely fought contest for America’s highest office. Then-former Vice President Richard Nixon bested Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968 and confronted a profoundly divided country, deeply split over the Vietnam War and domestic disturbances.

In his first Inaugural Address, President Nixon said:

“To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.

“To find the answer, we need only look within ourselves.

“When we listen to ‘the better angels of our nature,’ we find that they celebrate simple things, basic things, such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.

“Greatness comes in simple trappings.

“The simple things are the ones needed today if we are to surmount what divides us and cement what unites us.

 “To lower our voices is a simple thing.

“In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words: from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver, from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds, from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.

“We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another — until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”

As American Jews, we can find an answer to the divisiveness in our nation by heeding the great lessons of our faith. The great sage Rabbi Hillel confronted a skeptic who challenged the rabbi to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel responded by saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

To unify America, “we must all learn to listen to each other, and must lower our voices.” And, as Rabbi Hillel taught, we must not act toward our fellows in a manner that is hateful to ourselves. The remainder of what needs to be done to heal America is in the details of everyday life in which all Americans are engaged. But, as with Rabbi Hillel, the details are a form of commentary that spring forth from his basic teaching.

The challenges that confront America are mighty and summon the best that each of us has within us. As we prepare for a new president, let us rejoice in America’s basic freedoms and resolve to treat our fellow Americans as we wish to be treated.

This editorial ran in the Jewish Herald Voice in Houston Nov. 12 and is reprinted with permission.

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