Letter to the Editor: Processing Election Day 2016

By Karen Nichols

As I sit here, a few days into our electoral apocalypse, I am struggling with what to say. I, like many of you, am awash in worry, anger, fear and an almost overwhelming sadness. I wish I had a set of ready-made answers for how to counter the coming onslaught of harm to the vulnerable and marginalized in our society, to the environment and to our institutions. I wish I had solutions for healing our body politic so that we could reason with each other across the political divide with love and respect. In the coming weeks, political scientists, pundits and politicos will sermonize about why and how we got here, and how we move forward. I will leave all that to them. Right now, for me, the best I can do is this:

You have the right to feel sad, angry, anxious and/or afraid. The results of this election at both the federal and state level are and will be devastating for millions, and not just for policy reasons. Sexual assault victims are triggered by the knowledge that America has sent a sexual predator to the White House. LGBTQ, minority, Muslim, Jewish and immigrant people do not feel safe. Political strife is dividing families and ending friendships. Being upset means we are both human and awake.

We all process events like these in our own way and at our own pace. Some will want to cry, scream, withdraw and eat all the chips and dip. Others gather with friends for solace, and some of us are moved to jump into action and create change. All of these are okay and appropriate. No one is required to “get over it” and “get to work” (yet), though each of these approaches might be right for some.
Emotions are our messengers. We need to pause long enough to care for them and listen to what they have to say. Listening deeply to our own voice is ultimately where our power lies.

History provides insight into how to deal with the present. This is not the first time that a people has felt threatened by their government or by societal forces seemingly beyond their control. Indeed, the oppressed in this country will tell you that nothing here is really new, just being revealed. Yet, there is collective memory of how to face trying times. We can go to the teachers — Thoreau, Gandhi, Tutu, Mandela, Frank, Day, Wiesel, Nhất Hạnh, Romero, King, and many others — for wisdom and guidance in how to stand in this reality and how to move forward. We can look back in history at other eras — the fall of Rome, the London blitz — and even to other parts of the world today (Syria, Haiti, the Sudans) where people are suffering immensely and yet carry on with fortitude, with eyes fixed on a better future. We can turn to art and literature and the world’s great wisdom traditions for ways to see the situation in a different light.

Counter fear by living in the present moment. By focusing too much on the future, our imaginations can lead us to fear even more ills than will actually happen, and we inflict suffering on ourselves. Instead, wash the dishes, do the laundry, get the kids off to school. The leaves are still changing into beautiful Fruit Loop colors outside. Have you seen them?

Long term, inaction is not an option. At some point, when we are ready, those of us who are able will indeed need to uncurl from the fetal position and put our work gloves on. As much as I want to withdraw into the bubble of The People’s Republic of Johnson County, stop reading the news and, as Timothy Leary said, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” I recognize that it is the height of privilege for me to be able to even consider that option. My minority, LGBTQ and immigrant friends do not have such luxury. As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.”

Remember we are not alone. We need to build community with other endangered species (all of us). Community is where we find solace, direction, strategy and political power. Whether that means joining a local political action organization (see sidebar) or simply gathering with a few friends down at the pub, together we are much greater than the sum of our parts.

Three days after the election, protesters take to the streets following a rally on the Pentacrest. Nov. 11, 2016. --photo by Kelli Ebensberger
Three days after the election, protesters take to the streets following a rally on the Pentacrest. Nov. 11, 2016. –photo by Kelli Ebensberger

Put the oxygen mask on ourselves first. We can’t help others if we don’t first heal and nurture ourselves. Take a walk in the woods. Do some yoga. Meditate. Pray. Whatever grounds and resurrects you, whatever connects you to a deeper reality than what’s going on right now, do that.

Stand with the most vulnerable. Hate has been released from Pandora’s box, and reports of intimidation, harassment and violence are popping up here in the corridor and around Iowa. Stand firm with Muslims, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the poor and all those who are likely to suffer the most. Wear a safety pin in solidarity, showing you are a safe person who will stand up against hate. And call hate out and report it whenever we see it. Join and contribute to groups that will fight for human rights, starting with the ACLU, those badass lawyers who are our front line of defense in Trump’s America.

Don’t underestimate the impact of small kindnesses. Your sincere “How are you doing?” or “I hear you” may bolster someone far more than you know.

We must remind ourselves that, though our lives are small and our acts seem insignificant, we are generative elements of this universe, and we create meaning with each act that we perform or fail to perform. —Kent Nerburn

Go easy on the kumbaya, for now. It would be great if we could all kiss and hug and move on, but for many, that’s just not realistic yet. I want to love and forgive, but it is hard for me to embrace and unify with someone who is, for example, poised to take my gay friends’ rights away. Before there can be reconciliation, there needs to be justice and a basis for trust. This is where conservatives can help. Acknowledge that our pain is as real as yours, and that you will stand with us against the worst impulses brought forth by this election.

Consider next steps. According to, more than a dozen competitive districts will be in play in the Iowa House for the next election cycle. Even more will be in play in the Iowa Senate between now and 2020. In 2018, we have an opportunity to replace the governor. All of these present opportunities to repair whatever damage will be inflicted in the next two years on education, the environment, collective bargaining and so many other issue areas in Iowa. If six busloads of canvassers could bother to come into Johnson County from Chicago to canvass in this election, surely some of us can fan out into other parts of Iowa to campaign for candidates that will provide some balance.

And, finally, take the long view. The history of progress has always been in fits and starts. This election is a setback, but it is not the final word. The long arc of the moral universe still bends towards justice, just as King says. What will you do to bend it just a little further?

How Can I help?

Volunteer or make a donation. Here are just a few local organizations working for marginalized communities.

Karen Nichols is a writer, editor, activist and kid-wrangler living in Iowa City, and she really needs a vacation right about now. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 210.

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