Amid the political chaos, reason for optimism

Published 6:39 pm Tuesday, October 20, 2020

I cannot imagine, at this point, that there are more than a relative handful of Americans who are genuinely undecided how they will vote in the presidential election Nov. 3.

Opinions about the nation’s direction during the past four years have hardened to the point that those who favor and may have even enjoyed the upheaval of these years will vote to continue it, no matter where that leads. Those who are aghast at the political tone of these times will vote for a change in that tone. Where all that shakes out, we will soon know.

There is much to be concerned about in a year during which self-proclaimed “militias” have plotted to kidnap and execute governors, including our own. And yet, despite the upheaval, the drama — and the trauma — of the past four years, I believe there is also reason for optimism, and it applies more to our attitudes as citizens than to the possibility of genuine political reform, which always seems to be elusive.

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Americans can be hard-headed. It’s one of the traits that made us the greatest nation on earth. We set our minds on doing something and nothing can stop us. It’s how we built the juggernaut that saved the world from totalitarian rule in World War II and guided nation after nation toward democracy in its aftermath.

Being hard-headed, of course, also has its downside. When we hold misplaced values, they too can be difficult to change. We were slow, among advanced societies, to acknowledge the harm that industrialization has been doing to the environment. We paid lip service to global warming, but it has taken back-to-back 100-year floods in the Mississippi valley, repeated massive hurricanes, forest fires so great that they affect the air thousands of miles away, and year-to-year record increases in global temperature before we have finally begun to accept the scientific truth.

I think Americans are now ready to accept efforts to repair the planet we call home, and that is certainly reason for optimism.

We’ve been pretty hard-headed about civil liberties as well. When President Lyndon B. Johnson put his shoulder to the heavy lifting of the civil rights movement and pushed Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Americans still weren’t ready to accept that “all men are created equal” phrase in the Declaration of Independence. They reacted at the polls and drove the country away from further reform.

Today, there appears to be a more genuine desire to finally bring an end to the disparities that have economically held back people of color for centuries, and in all too many instances, have brought about their deaths. It was film footage of state troopers attacking civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge a half century ago that unleashed sentiment for Johnson’s legislative efforts, and it is the magic of cellphone cameras that today is putting racial intolerance at its worst on public display.

The nearly nine minutes it took a Minneapolis police officer to kill George Floyd were courageously recorded by a bystander, and that film ignited the current wave of protests across the nation. While militants have, as they always do, ensured that some of the protests would be violent, thousands upon thousands of people of all races and social standing have marched peacefully together to call for police reform and other improvements in civil liberties, including much-needed voter protection.

Our Constitution didn’t call for a “perfect union,” but rather a “more perfect union.” The former is utopian and unachievable, the latter is always possible and just beyond the horizon. I sincerely want to believe we’re headed once again toward that goal.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is