The list is staggering: a president who tweeted incessantly and in polarizing ways; a pandemic the might of which we had not seen for 100 years; civil rights violations unacceptable in a country purporting to be a global democratic leader exposed from a veneer of political correctness by social movements; an excruciatingly long election campaign that culminated with a dramatic yet equally drawn out finale; angry mobs storming a capitol in a manner (and getup) that we had not witnessed since the US civil war era; two impeachment proceedings that affirmed elected representatives were still deeply undecided with how to judge Trump; and the ultimate realization that there were more things dividing us as a nation than uniting us.
Can any good come out of this?
Much, I think. I’d like to suggest three possible outcomes that could be extremely useful in moving forward and rebuilding a better democracy in the United States.
For one, consider the national humility to be learned through a grand exposé of American exceptionalism. It is true; there is an air of superiority to how we function in the US. We have long functioned as though the horrors we witness (or play a part in instigating) in other countries could never happen to us. We assumed that we are worthy of better democracy, that our democracy is superior. We self-anointed ourselves to a leading role in the world and preached civil rights to nations that we sanction for violating them. Many of us lamented the election of Trump as if we were the only ones doomed to go through this; yet when our friends abroad pointed to similar examples elsewhere, we were all too eager to proclaim that our case was different. There is a certain lack of humility in this form of exceptionalism. I propose that we no longer think that way as a nation. We should set aside these assumptions, because whatever good work we have done does not exempt us from bad things. More importantly, we can learn a lot from other countries that have experienced similar or often much worse than we do. I hope we move forward down this humble path.
In doing so, I believe we will also be reminded that we have more in common than we think. Pre-COVID, I travelled the world and had conversations with strangers about what democracy is, what citizenship feels like, and how democracy might become better. I started in Mexico and ended my journey by visiting refugee centers, where I spoke with people from Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to name a few. I spoke with citizens from the US and the UK, Russia and China, Greece and Germany, Canada and Brazil, among many others. I was struck by the similarities between the fears and dreams of all kinds of people—rich and poor, conservative and progressive, young and old and everything in between. At the end of my conversations, people unfailingly asked: What did other people tell you? What do most people say? How do my responses compare? I would respond that they told me very similar things; they just chose different words. Another outcome, then, could be the reminder that we make sense of our lives using a different vocabulary to articulate our experiences or wants, and those words can be deeply divisive. They can alienate people and reaffirm exceptionalism, which makes the rivers between us deep and wide.
Sometimes the river is the bridge. Yes, we learned how we have created, reproduced and reinforced the rivers that divide us as a nation and were reminded of problems that, though some thought them extinguished, had simply been swept under the rug or masked as something else for decades. A third outcome could be a shift in the way we look at this division. Building bridges is difficult, especially when we have spent so much time expending the resources to craft them. Sometimes, however, the river is the bridge—the notional reminder that we are not there yet and we have to find ways to move across. It reveals the depth of division, but it also reminds us of what we lose by being separated from each other.
Let’s try to read the experience of the past four years in the US with a shared set of intentions. It won’t be easy, but painful. And it won’t happen instantaneously. Change is gradual. Revolutions are long; they have to be long, in order to attain meaning. But let’s not be swayed by teenage impatience for immediate gratification and swift change. Let’s persevere, this time around, and allow ourselves the privilege of growing pains. They will make us stronger.
Zizi Papacharissi is professor of communication and political science, head of the communication department, and University of Illinois Scholar at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She lives in Chicago, IL.