Our poor old ship of state has been battered over the past few months by cataclysms of dizzying variety and historic proportions.
- The COVID pandemic has strained institutions and relationships like nothing most of us have ever experienced, among other things throwing the national economy, local businesses and millions of households into turmoil.
- Another round of outrageous treatment of Black Americans led to extended, usually peaceful street demonstrations that still too often produced or provoked violence.
- When “the Notorious RBG” finally succumbed to the cancer she had so long resisted, the unrelenting partisanship that had first impeached and then acquitted a president now turned a confirmation hearing into a campaign event by one party while the other moved forward resolutely to ensconce the Supreme Court in a long-term mismatch with how the majority of Americans view their world.
- A presidential “debate” that looked and sounded more like a playground scrap between two fifth-grade boys was quickly followed by one of them testing positive for COVID. We may as a result be spared any more of those particular fiascos, but other forms of turmoil are almost certain to assail us in the coming weeks.
Which brings me back to our ship of state.
Pictured above is the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” as one artist portrayed her on the high seas under full sail. If I had managed to find an image of the famous frigate limping into port for repairs after one of her more damaging battles, I’d have used that to present even more evocatively our ragged, battered and leaking political vessel. Regardless of the image, though, my question is: what will it take to bring the ship of state to a serene enough anchorage that we can begin to restore her?
I won’t belabor my own conviction that Donald Trump is not and never has been the person who should be at the helm of that ship. A solid majority of Americans knew that in 2016 and voted accordingly. Even the Lindsey Grahams of the world would surely admit that this man is not presidential material, if they could allow themselves so much as a moment of genuine candor. While so many otherwise sensible Republicans have felt politically compelled to support their standard bearer at every turn, it is hard not to imagine most of them heaving a hearty sigh of relief when he no longer troubles their sleep.
While never an appropriate captain for our ship, though, Trump has repeatedly evoked another maritime image: that of a loose cannon, careening wildly around the deck, too energetic and erratic for anyone to tackle and tie down. Whether we view him as captain or cannon, though, I want to invite us to focus here less on that figure than on the crew. On us, in other words.
The more theatrical and chaotic the political process becomes in the coming weeks, the more important it will be for the adults in the room (including millions of young but thoughtful citizens) to bring to bear enough calm common sense to steer our ship to a safe harbor where it can be made seaworthy again. And the most threatening signs of dysfunction can serve as our checklist for the repair work that awaits us.
At least in the weeks between now and the election, then, (and I believe for some time after that) our watchword should be “steady as she goes.” Given all that is at stake, and given the perilous condition of our vessel, this is no time for any form of panic, nor for any drama beyond what the parties and the president can be counted on to supply.
So … steady as she goes. Hold this election. Vote. For the very few who still have genuine choices to make between competing candidates anywhere on the ballot — now is the time to put governing ability and problem-solving skills at the top of the list of criteria to guide our choices, ahead of party, ideology, or even policy positions. We’re choosing the officers for the next leg of our voyage. After what we’ve been through, we know which qualities of statecraft we should be looking for.
During these intervening weeks, if the relentless volleys of attack ads are driving you crazy, resolve to begin doing something about it once we get into the harbor. We know that if it were up to us to design how election campaigns are conducted, they wouldn’t look (or sound) anything like what we now endure every hour of every day. But why isn’t it up to us? Aren’t these our elections? Why have we let the Supreme Court and the political parties take the shaping of our elections out of our hands? While we sail slowly, carefully into this harbor, let’s make a note to ourselves to take back that control, once we tie up at the dock.
If you live in a gerrymandered congressional or legislative district where political manipulators have guaranteed that your vote is all but meaningless, remember that, immediately after this census, redistricting will begin. Inform yourself about the burgeoning movement toward citizen control of that process, and vow not to let another round of redistricting be controlled by anyone but you and your neighbors.
And if you fear another presidential election where the clear loser in the popular vote somehow becomes president, learn about the various paths to reform of the Electoral College. It’s the focus of Chapter One of Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy, and it should be high on the list of jobs we as citizens – the crew of this dear old ship — need to tackle once we drop anchor sometime hopefully not too far into November.