Though we’ve known for four years that the 2020 US election cycle would be even more fraught than the strange and painful fall of the 2016 elections, most of us still find ourselves a little disoriented these days. For some, the urgency to remove Trump from office has immobilized us. For others, it’s fortified us into action to get out the vote and to sway those who are undecided, apathetic, and reluctant.
In the final five weeks before the election of a lifetime, we asked writers to consider the undecided voter and contribute compelling arguments and ideas for making the world right. Some contributors sent us work that takes on issues with precision and gravity. Others sent us different work, perhaps an even more visceral snapshot of this alarming moment — a one-act play, an open letter, a story of exile. New writing will be published weekdays; we believe its wisdom and strength will help us all navigate the uncertainty ahead.
My son, age nine, has been interested in the newspaper since he could read. On Sunday mornings, when my husband and I would thumb through the New York Times — or, who am I kidding, skim headlines while his baby brother bellowed — Oliver would climb onto the couch and toss his Highlights magazine in favor of the Arts or Science section, asking every few sentences about a word he couldn’t pronounce or didn’t understand. At first, I assumed this bespoke his desire to be a grownup — or at least to be like his parents. And whether or not that’s how his pastime began, he now has an indisputable interest in current events, one far more developed than mine was as a preteen. Oliver hoards our magazines. Requests to hear NPR shows in the car. Is a repository of factoids. (Did you know hummingbirds take naps?)
I set out to parent in the same way I write: confronting difficult questions, answering as honestly as possible. When Oliver, at age five, wanted to know how babies were born, I unblushingly explained biology. When he asked about God, I described my irresolution. And when he encountered a term he didn’t recognize — Holocaust — I described, sans particulars, the extermination of our Jewish ancestors. That this atrocity transpired before both of our births made it potentially less haunting.
Since the election of Donald Trump, I have been in a state of parental flummox. It was inexplicable to my family — and the rest of our blue Brooklyn bubble gathered at the corner of President and Clinton Streets in 2016 — that 62 million people would willingly elect a con-man. As Trump’s in-office behavior exceeded fears, Oliver’s questions escalated.
Is that a real picture? he asked, pointing at children in cages.
Are all Muslims in ISIS?
What’s a thug?
We live two doors down from a police station, and after George Floyd’s murder, we joined peaceful protesters to proclaim outrage. I could not explain to my sons why, from our stoop, we saw law enforcement don riot gear and automatic weapons. I cannot explain why we pass unmasked officers daily or why they ignore us when we politely ask that they cover their mouths. Nor can I justify why many, including a beloved relative, continue to support a leader who not only sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives to guard his ego, but dog-whistled white supremacists in a presidential debate.
Here’s how I explain Trump’s 2016 win nowadays: not enough people thought their single votes mattered. Too few believed that calling a senator or signing a petition or marching in the streets would make a difference. Only 58% of Americans showed up to the polls in 2016, meaning almost 100 million eligible voters didn’t say a word.
The evidence has always been clear: When we are passive, we embolden predators. Let Jews incinerate. Declare that Black lives don’t matter. I want to empower my children to oppose depraved behavior wherever they see it — whether in the government or the schoolyard. And on election day, when I vote early, in person, I’ve promised Oliver that he can help me fill in the Biden bubble, so he feels, firsthand, the cruciality of denouncing hate. So he comprehends that every voice counts, including his.
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Courtney Zoffness’s work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She won the Sunday Times Short Story Award, as well as fellowships from the Center for Fiction and MacDowell. McSweeney’s will publish her debut, Spilt Milk: Memoirs, in March 2021.