America’s Crisis Election

I first became politically engaged at the age of 11 as a result of the historic 2008 US presidential election and have taken a keen interest in every subsequent US presidential election. In 2012, an article I wrote and submitted to a newspaper about presidential candidate Mitt Romney (https://dailytimes.com.pk/90359/romney-and-the-earth/) earned me the title of “Pakistan’s youngest Op-Ed columnist”. And then came 2016. The election race due that year was extraordinary, or so it felt to us back then. A candidate unlike any other was running for president, Donald Trump, and it plunged America into the deepest and most vicious polarization in recent memory. The election was contested bitterly, but its integrity was also at the center of controversy. Allegations of voter fraud and Russian interference were circulating. I was busy writing about all this on my personal blog https://jshahzebkhan.wordpress.com/. When Trump was elected president, the troubles did not end there. Widespread protests amidst allegations of an improper election followed. Since then, Trump’s entire first term has been a troubled time for America.

Now, Election Day 2020 has finally arrived. The United States of America is about to finish conducting the 59th Presidential Election of its history, the contest that will decide whether Trump goes on to serve a second term or if power goes to a reoriented Democrat Party, and I just have to say one thing.

This is all absolutely beyond belief.

What is mind-boggling about this election is not that it far exceeds the previous election in 2016 in terms of how viciously contested it is. We all expected that. It is instead the fact that, throughout this year, this election was pushed to the sidelines by other developments nobody could ever have imagined. In 2016, the presidential election was the earthshattering event consuming America and sending ripples across the world. In 2020, America is being buried by an avalanche of earthshattering events, in a world being overtaken by monumental events, making the election’s relevance mostly pale in comparison.

I have myself felt this unexpected turn of events. The interest I took in the 2016 election and its importance for the world was so much that I probably would have dedicated this year to studying and writing about the 2020 election. Instead, as director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management (PPLDM), I spent my time on PPLDM’s blog https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/ and YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3_vsqGckhCgB7WjdIGMoew reporting on the humanitarian crises taking place in Pakistan, as well as on various noteworthy world events besides the US election, of which there are no shortages. Now that the election is about to wrap up, it’s worth my while to say something about it and I might as well use this platform. The story of 2020 America has countless lessons for disaster management.

As for the American people, this election has been unlike any other for one simple reason. Previously, during any race for Presidential election, it was all they heard about on the news. It consumed the attention of the nation. This time, that has been far from the case. 2020 is probably the first time in modern history that America’s people, media, and even politicians have spent most of a presidential race without it being their primary focus. Candidates themselves held off campaign rallies for months. Several events that came out of the blue have been top priority for several months now and the role of the US election has been mainly to be influenced by them, rather than influencing what is happening in the country.

First, when 2020 was beginning, there was the impeachment and subsequent trial of Donald Trump, as well as Qasem Soleimani’s death in a drone strike bringing the US and Iran to the brink of war. It is only faintly alleged these events were related to the election race. Things really kicked off when the new strain of coronavirus emerged in China and shut part of the country down. COVID-19 proceeded to spread around the world, with countries like the US scrambling to forestall it, but turned into a pandemic and America quickly became its epicenter. A quarter of a million Americans have already died. Much of the country has been subjected to unheard-of lockdowns and the economy plunged into a severe recession with vast unemployment and both supply and demand plummeting. In the midst of all this, George Floyd’s death ignited the nation’s racial fault lines and plunged the whole nation into chaos, with millions of protestors immediately taking to the streets, and unrest has continued since, stoked by further cases of police violence against black people. Among various examples of anomalously extreme weather, the West’s wildfire season has been devastating, burning four million acres in California and spreading toxic air across the country. A hyperactive hurricane season has seen tropical storms forming at the fastest rate ever and a record-breaking 11 of them hit the US. The US has not been severely impacted yet, but this is still an extremely perilous season for the country. And just a month before Nov. 3, a COVID-19 outbreak overtook the White House and sent the president to the hospital.

Now that the US presidential election itself is underway, it is finally at the forefront of the nation’s attention. It is all well, because the importance of this election for America and for the rest of the world cannot be overstated. Very, very unfortunately, it is also all set to become yet another one of America’s catastrophic upheavals. Businesses across the country are preparing themselves for post-election violence, boarding up storefronts. Law enforcement agencies and social media companies are also straining to prepare themselves for this scenario. No matter who wins, a lot of Americans will be very upset amidst conditions volatile enough for them to be easily driven to the streets and even to all-out violence. Trump has also not guaranteed that he will accept the results if he loses. The same could be possible for Joe Biden. Right now, Trump is suggesting that mail-in-ballots should not be counted after November 3 and that the winner should be declared on Election night. A battle over the election outcome is very likely to happen and this could aggravate any social unrest taking place during that time. It may be that America’s most dangerous time is round the corner, as the election completely unravels the nation’s political and social divisions.

The election could also prove a health disaster for America. People are supposed to be physically distant to ward off the coronavirus, but this cannot happen with in-person voting. The option of absentee voting is available to many and people are taking advantage of it while casting their ballots early. So far, most of these people have voted Democrat and some analysts think that many Republican voters have heeded Trump’s warning of mail-in-voting (the main way to vote early) being susceptible to fraud and are instead waiting to head to the polls in person on Election Day. If so, then turnout could spike on November 3 and this could possibly end up being America’s biggest super-spreader event yet. So many people could catch COVID-19 at once that hospitals will not be able to treat them all. The situation is especially dangerous since winter is predicted to be peak season for COVID-19, and it certainly is for other viruses such as the flu. So you have millions of voters at the polls at winter’s beginning and millions of people could contract COVID-19, along with other pathogens, and the nation’s healthcare system would then get catastrophically overwhelmed.

On a brighter note, early turnout for this election has been record-breaking. Nearly 100 million people voted early. This is a strong sign overall voter turnout will be much higher than in 2016. Besides the fact that not gathering at the polls in one day minimizes the risk of coronavirus infection, it is a good idea for Americans to vote in the weeks before Election Day because there was always a good chance that when November 3 rolls around, circumstances would compromise the ability to vote. 2020 is an unpredictable year. You never know what new trouble could break out in the country or in an individual voter’s life. It should be a big concern for elections.

The most likely threat to worry about was a hurricane, or hurricanes. This is an unusual season in terms of how many major cyclones (what are called “named storms”) have formed. But America’s saving grace is that a relatively small proportion of them turned into dangerous hurricanes. However, nothing can be guaranteed in such a season as this. The Atlantic has already had Laura, one of America’s biggest hurricanes ever. It has had tropical storms intensify with breakneck speed. It had multiple storms at the same time. America had a potentially election-disrupting storm before with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, proving a major hurricane can occur this late in the year. If another one like it was to happen right now, it could prevent many Americans from voting, which would be a tragedy. It could also throw the counting of votes into disarray, making a disputed election more likely. A natural disaster could even prompt the election to be postponed, as Trump had suggested before because of coronavirus, thereby setting off a firestorm of controversy. Plus, think of how the nation’s preoccupation with this election could distract from its handling of a sudden disaster.

Thankfully, America has passed this danger by. Now, if a threatening storm forms and is heading towards the US, the preparations that people in areas in the storm’s track have to take may conflict with voting. But the only hurricane in the Atlantic right now, Eta, has a track that points entirely towards Central America. For America’s election, the only tropical concern now is that it may take days or weeks for ballots to be counted after the polls close on November 3 and any number of hurricanes could arrive to disrupt that, thereby making it easier for the results to be contested.

Whether the US election will be conducted in a fair, effective, and safe manner has been one of America’s biggest concerns this year. Even if it does, there is no doubt the election race holds dire ramifications for America. It has divided the country more than ever while it was going on and its conclusion may unleash chaos. While that may be insignificant compared to the chaos America has been dealing with for months already, post-election conflict may exacerbate all of the nation’s troubles and hamstring its crisis management.

It will go down as a remarkable fact in American history that such astonishing upheavals overtook the election race while it was taking place; the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu, the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression, and civil unrest and racial protests of a level not seen since the ‘60s and ‘70s. That the election is the culmination of extreme Trump-era divisiveness means that all those cataclysms come at a highly volatile time for America. Everything is coming together to make 2020 a very turbulent year for that country. And let us not forget that we are in the most intense period of climate change since the end of the Last Ice Age. The mounting climate crisis may not come across to people on a day-to-day basis as an urgent issue, but 2020 is delivering the strongest wake-up calls yet. In the months before Election Day, Americans across the country have been going out and seeing a Martian sky above, turned red by wildfire smoke, and have choked on toxic air polluted by the same. They turn on the TV and hear, day after day, of cyclonic storms popping up in the Atlantic with bizarre, unfamiliar names like Gamma, Epsilon, and Zeta. The weather has been campaigning to push climate change as an election issue, even if people are not doing so.

It is a complicated matter figuring out how all these developments of 2020 have affected the election. I would say that in most presidential elections, Americans base their votes on the issues that concerned them for the last four years, but now, they have to be primarily concerned with issues that they would never have been able to imagine just several months ago. It is fitting, because 2020 is a time in which things have changed profoundly for America, so the country now must choose a government that is best able to lead a nation in crisis. It therefore could be considered a good thing that all these crises started taking place shortly before the election, instead of afterwards, because now Americans can pick a government ready-made for changing times. This may be the start of a new period in America’s history and its people have the opportunity at the very beginning to remake the nation in response.

On the other hand, there are downsides to an election taking place while the country suddenly has so many pressing issues to deal with. Because America is occupied with the burden of a major civic process, this could interfere with the management of its crises. Just the fact that 14 billion dollars have been spent on the 2020 presidential and congressional election, a record-breaking amount for America, is enough to raise serious eyebrows. Shouldn’t that money have been better spent elsewhere, like on saving people from COVID-19? Plus, political factions may mold their handling of serious issues in pursuit of their election goals. For such people, winning the election becomes top priority, not helping the people. It seems to be happening in the extreme, as indicated by Trump threatening to fire Anthony Fauci and accusing doctors of conflating COVID-19 cases for monetary gain. Speaking of President Trump, the fact that he is running for re-election means that he has two occupations together, being president and campaigning for being president. And given that this is Trump, he might sidestep the former priority for the latter. Trump has received a lot of flak for mismanaging America’s 2020 crises. Is it not possible that he, and the rest of the government, would have done a better job if this was not an election year?

2020 may push the United States of America towards a reckoning of its political system. A democratic government has to be structured in such a way as to make the country the best it can be. But since it appears the current round of a quadrennial election is hampering the country’s handling of national crises, this may be the time that Americans need to reconsider elections and what they mean for the country. Perhaps reform in the electoral system is needed. But maybe just the attitude of the people and the politicians towards elections should be reoriented. America’s problems could be better fixed if properly doing your job as a government official becomes the best way of campaigning in an election. President Trump, for instance, could have been very afraid of failing to tackle his nation’s crises if it was clear to him that this would obliterate his election chances. But Trump remained fixated with holding big rallies where his face was visible even when doing so was very much not a good idea for all those involved, indicating instead that he thinks running for election depends on the visuals. And it may be because a lot of people in America are actually swayed by visuals. Trump should certainly know all about what the people want. He was a businessman all his life.

The divisions inherent in the election are the worst thing. Elections are, by nature, a time when people are feuding with each other and these feuds can be particularly intense at some times, like now in America. But serious problems and crises depend upon unity in order to fix. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union once agreed to halt their rivalry if the Earth suffers an alien invasion. But Democrats and Republicans have done no such thing during the pandemic. Election Day on November 3, 2020 is one thing that cannot be scrapped, so they might as well keep themselves oriented towards it no matter what. 2020’s biggest lesson for America is that something needs to be done about this fact of life.

This year has been one in which change is being imposed on America. America needs to change in response. Hopefully, the government it has after January 20 will effectively lead the way in that. Its leadership is important, but so is the involvement of everybody. The American people must rise up to meet the challenges which have plagued them throughout 2020 and which will certainly continue into 2021. Voting is just part of what they can do. This election will play a big role in determining what kind of a year 2021 will turn out to be for America. And it will help decide what future America has in the long-run.

American voters now have a final day of voting ahead for them. This will be America’s most important day in an immensely historic year. Nobody can say what its outcome will be. It could escalate America’s tensions or it could finally calm things down. The result might be contested all the way up to the Supreme Court or not at all. There are strong indications that Joe Biden will win, based upon polling and early turnout. But, as stated before, there could be a Republican surge on Nov. 3, so it may be a close race (though my bet is on Joe Biden, if the whole process goes smoothly). It will certainly be a crossroads for America. It is vital for that nation and for the world that Americans make the right choice at the voting booths.

And so Election Day begins as the world watches closely. It will be quite a riveting story to watch, though we may have to be patient for the ending. Today, on November 3, 2020, I went onto CNN and watched Trump say at a rally “You have the power to vote. So go out and vote, unless you’re gonna vote for somebody other than me, in which case, sit it out”. Wow. That’s quite something to hear a president say. Then I logged onto Yahoo News to get a rundown of all the news. I could not wait to see what crazy and mind-blowing election story must be flashing at the top of the page. As soon as I did, I saw that the front story displayed prominently on top was headlined “Hurricane Eta could reach Category 5 status.” The sub-heading said “Maximum sustained winds of 150 mph”. A Category 5 hurricane in the Caribbean, one of the most powerful ever, while winter is just around the corner. I guess that’s 2020 for you. The outcome of the US election is an event that will be looming large on everyone’s mind, but it will be just one of many events to do so. All we can do is hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.