This election revealed how Americans respond in a crisis

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The 2020 presidential election is the most important election of our lives. Various versions of that statement have been oscillating in and out of focus for the last year at least. The looming political climax has hummed in the background as we’ve tried to navigate the day-to-day, and to meet the challenges of an employment and economic crisis, climate change-driven natural disasters, the persistent threat of white supremacist violence and police brutality, and the ongoing and possibly worsening global pandemic. The 545 minors forcibly separated from their families and caged at the U.S.-Mexico border whose parents U.S. officials have been unable to locate are each a child-sized crisis, too.

Even still, many argue that the urgency of this Election Day is about preventing the U.S.'s fragile, incomplete democracy from falling headfirst into fascism, losing all of its favorite patriotic ideals to a full-blown authoritarian regime. It feels hyperbolic — partially because the U.S. has always presumed itself immune to those kinds of political catastrophes, and partially because the last four years have been drenched in dramatic language from every direction. Our collective disaster gauge might’ve been thrown a bit out of whack by the sheer number of emergencies we’ve stomached in recent years.

Then again, experts and political commentators have spent the last few weeks talking about what to do if the president loses the election and instead stages a coup and refuses to leave office. So perhaps the constant drumbeat of crisis talk isn't as much of a stretch as we’d like to think. And with so much coming to a head during this election cycle, the overlapping emergencies have revealed a lot about the American public.

No matter the response, we’ve all been changed by this presidency.

For better or worse, an election year marked by so much turmoil has showed how Americans respond to true crisis. Many progressives have invested themselves in more radical actions, pushing for transformative policy proposals to address the widespread inequality and vulnerabilities that months of pandemic-induced ruin and racial justice protests have laid bare. Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, have most often settled for paying lip service to those issues while more consistently aligning themselves with limited solutions, rather than endorsing a swing for the fences. Then there's the American right, which by and large has responded to the crises by, somehow, refusing to believe they’re actually crises at all. Pleas to wear a mask to prevent a deadly airborne virus from spreading have been met with tantrums over their discomfort; protests to stop killing Black people with abandon have been criticized for adjacent property damage rather than examined for the painful pleas they are.

No matter the response, we’ve all been changed by this presidency. If eight years under Barack Obama’s presidential leadership brought out reactionary voting and enthusiastic racism from the conservative right, what have four years of Trump’s governance brought out of us?

For all of our American hubris, it can’t be overstated how deeply energizing it has been to watch millions of people — some for the first time — step into their own bravery and commit to advocating for and showing up each other in so many creative and significant ways. From the mutual aid networks that have continued to pop up around the country to the tens of thousands of people who protested in the streets for months after the police killing of George Floyd, the scourge of uniquely American political apathy seems to have been dashed, at least for now. With voters getting behind progressive ideas that might’ve been considered radical just a few years ago, like tuition-free public college, a wealth tax, the Green New Deal, and weed legalization, it's thrust a whole new slate of policy possibilities that would've been considered wholly unrealistic fringe ideas up into the realm of possibility.

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All four of these issues enjoy significant public support, by the way. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year, 63% of U.S. adults are in favor of making public colleges tuition-free. That includes 86% of Black adults and 82% of Latinx adults, along with 75% of adults under the age of 30. Even a wealth tax is supported by a majority of Americans; according to Reuters/Ipsos poll this year, 64% of participants strongly or somewhat agreed that “the very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs.” The numbers look similar for the Green New Deal too: Sixty-three percent of American adults support that proposal, according to a poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist. Weed legalization, meanwhile, has been supported by the majority of Americans for some time. A Data for Progress poll from August reported that 58% of those polled support federal legalization — and interestingly enough, that number increases 62% for people in support of vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’s own specific weed legalization legislation.

But despite the fact that a year of crisis has led a sizable portion of the American public to embrace some of the most ambitious policy proposals in circulation, that all-or-nothing ethos hasn't translated everywhere. Moderate Democrats have showed that they weren’t as moved to action as some of their constituents are. The party’s inability to put up a real fight to prevent now-Justice Amy Comey Barrett’s Supreme Court hearing and subsequent confirmation is their most recent lapse in true leadership, but much of their political work over last four years has been more about iterative progress than transformative change.

Vice President Joe Biden embodies this approach quite well, actually. Consider his approach to the Supreme Court; even amid the controversy surrounding Barrett’s confirmation and the resulting cry from the left to "pack the courts," the most concrete answer Biden could offer after several days of evasion was that he'd possibly create a committee to look into the issue if he wins the presidency. Still, the fact that he won the Democratic presidential nomination over popular populists like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren gives the approach some credibility. In a tumultuous election year, the slow churn of progress won the right to lead the Democrats over a more radical, comprehensive approach. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to lead all Americans.

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The mounting emergencies, meanwhile, seem to have had a precisely opposite effect on the right. Rather than cleave the movement into two rather distinct approaches, it seems the constant urgency instead prompted conservatives to coalesce into one mashed-up glob of rancor and righteousness. The most visible factions of the right have responded to the literal scientific fact of COVID-19’s viral spread by simply refusing to believe it — despite the positive cases rippling throughout the White House, including Trump himself, and despite the still-rising death toll. It's easy then to understand how a wholly unsubstantiated position like climate denial might persist among the same group — despite, despite, despite. And even Trump’s own failed promises haven’t appeared to do much damage to his reputation among his base of supporters, who have somehow managed to ignore the unemployment numbers, the total lack of a cogent health care plan, the infamous border wall that is struggling to be built and displacing Americans in the process. Thankfully, Trump couldn’t even deliver on many of his destructive policies, though the damage he's wrought over the last four years has brought America to a precipice, and his supporters seem still willing to gun it off the cliff just to see what happens.

When Trump won the election in 2016, it was difficult to imagine with any clarity what the next four years would bring. The time has certainly changed many of us — even those of us who understood concretely what to expect from elevating a man like him to office. When the 2020 presidential campaign clashed with generational crisis after generational crisis, a new version of Americans emerged. Unfortunately, exceptionalism doesn't look the same to everyone.

In time, we'll know who won the 2020 election. It might take days, or even weeks, and it might take court intervention. But we will eventually emerge from this uncertainty knowing who's been given the responsibility to lead us through the next four years. If this turbulent election year has showed us anything, it's that Americans can and will weather a crisis — but how they'll choose to do so is hardly a given.