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Column: Is election anxiety getting to you, too? Here’s my plan

Joe Biden and Donald Trump speak at separate rallies.
(Andrew Harnik / AP; Alex Brandon / AP)

Like so many other events of 2020, my husband’s birthday has been postponed. Indefinitely.

In this case, however, the culprit is not COVID-19. It’s anxiety.

For the record:

12:45 p.m. Nov. 2, 2020An earlier version of this post referred to the villain of the film “Halloween” as Jason. He is the Shape.

My husband’s birthday is Nov. 3.

“Do you want to celebrate it a day early?” I ask. “Or even this weekend?”

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“Are you kidding?” he answers. “I won’t be able to think of anything but the election from now until it’s over.”

“How about the day after? There might be cause for …”

“Don’t say it,” he interrupts feverishly. “Don’t say anything about the day after. Who knows what the day after will be like, or the week after? Did you read that ...” and here the conversation devolves into highly annotated description of voter suppression, Supreme Court manipulation, the insanity of the electoral college system and the possibility of civil war.

So that’s how it’s going in my house. How is it going in yours?

“The song is decrying the kind of person [Trump] is,” says the Creedence Clearwater Revival founder of his 1969 antiwar classic. “He’s absolutely that person I wrote the song about.”

My husband is, obviously, a liberal, and liberals are pretty highly strung these days. They are an anxious, fretful breed to begin with — never happy with the status quo, always pushing for some problem to be solved and often, according to conservative critics, via expensive federal intervention or the rejection of traditions that form the bedrock of this nation. Traditions like Nativity scenes in front of government buildings and an unwavering trust in institutions like the police force to keep things calm and steady.

Liberals, of course, don’t see it that way. They consider the separation of church and state to be the actual rock upon which this country was founded and believe that trust must be earned by non-abusive behavior, that “calm and steady” has too often been defined by a small group protecting their own interest by suppressing the opportunities of millions.

Sometimes, like this year, it’s hard to believe that liberals and conservatives are the same species, much less fellow citizens, sharing a devotion to peanut butter and icy cold beverages that baffles the rest of the world.

Some scientists have suggested that the split is neurological. In various studies, subjects who identify as liberal show more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that deals with conflict and changing habitual response; those who identify as conservative do more work in the amygdala, which controls emotions such as fear. Conservatives have a stronger reaction to perceived threats and are more physically affected by disgusting imagery. Or, as put in the abstract of a 2007 report in Nature, “conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty.”

Which may explain why so many liberals are finding these last few election countdown days so excruciating: Every day brings a new round of deeply complex, ambiguous and novel things to worry about.

For more than three years, Obama didn’t respond to Trump’s attacks, honoring the norm that former presidents don’t criticize successors. But no more.

For many liberals, the thought process — if you can call this hamster wheel of emotional reaction “thought” — goes something like this:

The national polls show Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ahead by a wide margin, but then again, most of those same polls showed Hillary Clinton ahead four years ago (albeit by a smaller margin) and she wound up winning the popular vote and losing the election.

(God, remember how terrible that night was, and the days after, just waiting for what had happened to somehow not have happened? How can you win the popular vote and lose the election? How?)

But wait, the polls in key states also show Biden with a clear path to electoral college victory, and now there are a bunch of cool maps that seem to prove it, except the ones that don’t. (Why does the media insist on all these scenario maps when they just make everyone crazy? Oh wait, another map! This one suggests viewers click on states to build their own map, like it’s a game. Except it’s not!)

But Donald Trump’s campaign insists there are millions of silent Trump supporters who may even be lying to pollsters — and anyway were you alive in 2016? Do you remember when Michigan fell?

(Don’t look at the polls, don’t look at the maps; did you even hear what I just said about the national polls and how in 2016 they were almost all wrong? And what are most of the maps based on? The polls!)

Polls also show that most Americans disapprove of how Trump and his administration have handled the COVID-19 pandemic, but look at all those people showing up, often mask-less, never socially distant, for his rallies? Who are these people? Do they not see the spikes in states after one of these rallies has been held? How can the president’s son say the death rate is down to almost nothing on a day when 1,000 people died?

How do you make sociopolitical satire when the president is commending kidnappers and the Kardashians are calling their escape to a private island “normal”? You can’t.

Is there something wrong with me? I was never great with numbers, but that seems like a lot of people — if a roving band of immigrants killed 1,000 people in a day, I’m pretty sure Trump and his kin would be upset about it.

But then, Trump loves to make people crazy. Leveraging amorphous frustration is his game plan, chaos is his ladder. I know this. I refuse to succumb, although if I hear the term “peaceful transfer of power” one more time, I will run shrieking into the wilderness. (Why do the reporters keep asking Trump about this? He’s clearly not going to say, “Yes, I will commit to this,” so move on.)

It will be fine. This is a democracy, based on the will of the people. Only all the people need to participate.

Wait, are they?

Look at the polls; don’t look at the polls. So many numbers. Young people will turn the tide of the election — no wait, old people will. Black men are key, or white suburban women, or white men without a college degree. But whose votes will count? Will mail-in ballots be filled out correctly or postmarked in time? Will they languish in some post office somewhere?

Should we all go to Florida and offer to sort the mail like Cher did this summer? (Why is it always Florida?) Some states don’t seem to have enough ballot boxes, which is insane, while here in California we had a few fake ones — doubly insane. Every media platform has been filled for days with the images of voters waiting in horrendously long (though socially distant) lines, often in the rain.

Is that a good thing — people are determined to vote! — or a bad thing — why is this country making it so hard to vote? The president keeps saying that he wants only those ballots received by Nov. 3 to count, but that’s not how we do it even in non-pandemic years, so what’s that about?

It’s about him stealing the election, that’s what. Just look at my Twitter feed. Actually you don’t have to look at my Twitter feed, just look at the headlines. “This Is What Stealing an Election Looks Like” is an actual headline and not in Mother Jones, in Rolling Stone! You can blame the media (honestly, those headlines), but the president went into this race saying that this election would somehow be “rigged” to benefit Biden. But many people believe that this is just code for what Trump is planning to do himself! Also, there was a blue moon on Halloween. A blue moon! With Mercury in retrograde in Scorpio, which means something really intense! Bette Midler tweeted it and she played the main witch in “Hocus Pocus” so she must know!

Look at the polls; don’t look at the polls. Look at the maps; don’t look at the maps. Look at social media; swear off social media. Read the 9,700 think pieces about what will happen in any scenario that are flooding every screen but the screen door, or don’t. Worrying never changed the course of history, although preparation has.

Think about it too much and there is no scenario that isn’t a nightmare — do you think Beverly Hills is closing Rodeo Drive on election day for its health? — but scenarios are speculation, not fact.

Better to conserve our energy, right? But how? Find a distraction — maybe read a book (except in the books you like, justice is served and endings are happy — and you know that’s not real life!). Watch some of those fun scary movies that were playing for Halloween; just don’t watch the political ones. (Wait, they suddenly all seem political — all those indestructible monsters and their endless sequels. Sequels! That’s what this election is all about: Is Trump the Shape from “Halloween”?)

You know what? Screw it. This is American democracy, in the middle of a pandemic and at whatever stage of evolution or collapse historians will label it. No one said this stuff was easy; the Constitution does not mention anxiety one way or the other. We will deal with whatever comes in the best way we can because that is what we always do.

As for the twitching, anxious days that lie before us, well, here’s my plan: Nov. 3 is my husband’s birthday, so I’m going to give my anterior cingulate cortex a rest and go make a chocolate cake.

According to polls, it’s the most popular cake in the country, and I have one hell of a recipe.

Whether Trump or Biden wins, difficult repair works lies ahead after election 2020. Can we bridge our cultural divide?


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