Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Oct 31, 2020
Why is that ‘American optimism’ missing in the 2020 US elections?

The American ethos rests on optimism. The national engine is fueled by a belief in endless possibility and driven by a fierce frontier spirit. The destination is always a better tomorrow.

But three days before the vote in the 2020 presidential election, the mood is dark, despairing and distinctly low on hope. The language is apocalyptic, traditional cheer almost absent and fear rampant. Some have even raised the spectre of the coming of the “End Times” with death all over the globe by the plague as prophesied in the New Testament. It’s not just the partisans who have been talking up extremism but the bearers of what goes for “mainstream” opinion today are also pushing the envelope. Depending on your predilections, you can choose your mainstream but in reality, there is no mainstream anymore, so twisted and out of reach is honest information. There is no one truth.

If you are a votary of capitalism, Donald Trump would have you believe that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are agents of socialism, ready to impose government regulations on how much red meat you can consume. If you believe in government accountability, Biden says that Trump is a train run amuck destroying everything in his path. He has no plan for today or tomorrow. If you believe climate change is real and the earth is literally dying as we speak, Biden supporters believe Trump will drive the last nail into its coffin. If you worry about the safety of your family, beware of Biden, because he will let violent protestors lose in your suburbs, say Trump voters.

Defeat means the death of democracy because a victory for the other side is the end of the kind of life to which you have become accustomed. It’s socialism vs. totalitarianism – take your pick. And picking the “wrong” side means breaking old friendships. CNN anchor Don Lemon said he had to “get rid of” certain friends because “they are too far gone.” He meant they supported Trump and were not living in reality. The two candidates fighting for America have painted each other black and their supporters have followed the lead. There is no rose-pink tint or even a shade of grey for the average voter to hang their hat on.

There is no Ronald Reagan calling out, “It’s morning again in America” or Bill Clinton playing the “man from Hope” – his hometown in Arkansas. No “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush and no “Yes, we can” message of Barack Obama. The American voter seems fundamentally alone this time, struggling between a raging pandemic and economic hardship, trying to find a semblance of normalcy and will himself to get to the other side.

Around 70% of Americans say the 2020 election is a deep source of anxiety, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association. Unable to trust poll data after 2016, they are doom scrolling on Twitter, navigating the perils of uncertainty. Last election, only 52% had reported anxiety.

How the always-optimistic America got here can be a very long debate but suffice it to say that both political parties are guilty of serious crimes committed in the people’s name. In 2020 a frequent lament of voters is that neither candidate instills confidence nor truly inspires them.

Respect for scientific and institutional authority is low while the swirl of fake news and conspiracy theories strong, thanks to the spread of social media and technology. Perhaps, people are trying to fill a void with wild mind games of QAnon just to feel in control against the pandemic.

The summer of discontent and racial justice protests led by Black Lives Matter but joined by thousands of Whites added another heavy weight on the voters’ shoulders. The protests led to counter protests by Trump supporters, many of them from White supremacist groups, often ending in violence. The breakdown of law and order in large cities, the routine brutality of police against Blacks and the lack of real answers have only added to the atmosphere of “apocalypse now.” Whether calm will prevail after the results are announced is unclear since both sides consider the other illegitimate and unworthy.

The matter may land at the door of the US Supreme Court where Trump has ensured a comfortable conservative majority. Biden supporters are incensed that Republicans pushed the nomination and confirmation of a reliable conservative – Amy Coney Barrett -- at the last-minute with an eye to a litigious aftermath. Democrats feel helpless and hopeless at the “court packing.”

To the extent the candidates try to give a positive message after they are done with the gloom and doom – a socialist hell and the pandemic death toll – it tends to get lost.  When Trump talks of bringing the economy back to health, an issue that actually resonates, he tends to drown his own message with long rants at the rallies. Biden has so few campaign events that his message of unifying the country barely makes it to the nightly news. But his virtual campaign has one upside – unprecedented amount of fund raising.

In the end, the average voter must wade through a sea of emails from both campaigns, dive into the swamp of Facebook or run through Twitter to connect to the candidates. And find hope.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. Seema has worked with several ...

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