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As the last ballots are counted, we the people have the power to determine what happens next

Despite claims to the contrary, the power to determine our fate still rests with the people of this country.

SHARE As the last ballots are counted, we the people have the power to determine what happens next
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In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, two women, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, cast their ballots at a polling station at Windham, N.H. High School.

Charles Krupa, Associated Press

As the last ballots are counted and our collective anxiety as a nation begins to fade as we come closer to a firm conclusion about the results of the presidential election, we have the opportunity to choose what happens next.

While the outcomes of this election cycle will inevitably shape the next two to four years of our country and possibly beyond, we have to remember that we are more than those whom we elect. We have a choice about what we do next. We have the opportunity to shape and determine our future. Choosing our representatives is a part of that future, but it is not the whole. Despite claims to the contrary, the power to determine our fate still rests with the people of this country. 

As I think about movements in our history that have brought about real change, like the suffragette and civil rights movements, it becomes clear that our history proves that when people unite and make changes among themselves and their communities first and then expand those movements, they have the power to shape and reshape the country despite the laws and leaders already in place. Grassroots movements where individuals take action to find solutions to problems through open discussion, community organization and petitioning or peacefully protesting for change are the fundamental strategies that have helped this nation evolve to be a leader in equality and freedom since its birth. 

For weeks now I have heard and read a slew of hyperbolic statements and claims about how this election will decide the fate of our country and how our very democracy hangs in the balance. The drama has been exaggerated on both sides as divisive rhetoric has caused divisions among my friends and families over political ideals. At times I feel I am stepping back in history as the level of division reaches heights this country hasn’t seen in decades. 

With claims of voter fraud and ballot tampering, riots on the streets and armed citizens showing up at ballot counting stations streaming in from every direction on the news and social media, the predictions that we are on the brink of a civil war have begun to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we push ourselves and our ideals further apart, escalating conflict may seem like the most realistic outcome. But it doesn’t have to be. 

As Yuval Levin, the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs, stated in a recent opinion piece published by The New York Times, “Our deepest problems aren’t really amenable to resolution by a president. … No president could resolve them, no Congress could address them. But from the bottom up, there are more opportunities to take them on.”

In essence, the onus is on us as individual citizens to determine what problems and issues around us we can solve. 

This year’s election saw the best voter turnout on record in American history. True, there are more of us than ever, but it is comforting to know that more of us also turned up at the polls or took the time to register and send in our ballots than ever before. As I see it, that’s a pretty good first step.

But, whether the candidates you or I chose end up winning or not, our civic duties remain. Voting is good, but what comes next? We have the responsibility to ask ourselves “What should we be doing next to help shape and determine the future of this country and our future in it?”

Each of us has responsibilities in our communities, in our churches, in our families, and yes, in our states and nation, and those responsibilities go beyond simply selecting the representatives who make the big decisions. 

Levin says the defining question we should be asking ourselves is, “Given my role here, what should I be doing?” 

That question is a great starting point because civic engagement is often as simple as beginning conversations about important issues in civil and open ways. Civic engagement can also include joining community or religious organizations that are taking action and already organizing around issues and, of course, individuals and communities can always email, call or otherwise reach out to local politicians to advocate for action or changes in policies. Remember, government leaders are elected to serve on behalf of the people, not for their own interests.

So my challenge to myself and to you is this: Ask, “What does your neighbor or community need and, given your position, how can you help? What can you do to reconnect with someone with whom you had a disagreement and reopen that conversation in a more civil way? What can you do today or tomorrow that can positively contribute to the lives of those around you? 

Such questions turn the focus away from what we want, to what others may need, and by doing so, we set ourselves on a path for unity rather than division.

Rather than allowing extremist rhetoric and poor examples of leadership to point us down a path of division and despair, we have the opportunity now, before the outcome of this election is fully decided, to choose to unite with one another, to overcome our differences and to determine our own future.

The Constitution begins with “We, the people.” And that is where the true power of this nation lies.