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analysis

Bartender Sam Schilke watches election results in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 3, 2020.Paula Bronstein/The Associated Press

With millions of ballots uncounted and results in key battleground states still unknown, with claims of victory still unfounded and with the direction of the next critical days still unclear, many vital questions in U.S. politics remain unanswered. But one broad social and cultural matter not on the ballot was plain in a country whose democratic values were launched in an 18th-century revolutionary document that began “We the people …”

From Pennsylvania in the East to Arizona in the West, from Wisconsin and Michigan in the North to Georgia and North Carolina in the South, Americans awakened Wednesday morning and found themselves concluding, “We the impatient are living in an age of imprecision.”

This is an age when an errant keystroke (hitting “con” rather than “com” at the end of an e-mail address) can stall a vital communication and when a hasty result in a drive-through COVID-19 test (“positive” rather than “negative”) can change the life of an individual and a family. It is a time when answers to important questions (Where is the nearest hospital emergency room?) and peripheral trivia questions (How many RBIs did Jackie Robinson have for the Montreal Royals the season before he broke baseball’s colour barrier?) can be retrieved in an instant, and yet the most pressing issue in contemporary American life remained mired in imprecision: Who will be the president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021?

In an age when a separate vital question – How many Americans have contracted COVID-19? – remained unanswered, the country was confronting a separate incident of imprecision. Both those questions were unanswered when Joe Biden began his march to the Democratic presidential nomination, as the virus was spreading surreptitiously through a country of prosperity and promise. They were unanswered when President Donald Trump imposed restrictions on travel from China. They were unanswered when the two candidates held their virtual political conventions. And they are unanswered even after all the ballots have been cast.

Indeed, scholars mark historical eras by the method and sophistication of counting – whether primitive peoples possessed “more” or “less,” whether the means of measurement that emerged from the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians endured, whether the parade of years went backward in BC or forward in AD, whether the stock values of the New York Stock Exchange were listed by fractions of one-16th points or by decimal points.

In this era – the most advanced age of measurement in the history of humankind – we are impatient with imprecision.

That imprecision has thrust the United States of America into a new period of uncertainty.

The country, to be sure, is experiencing a political test of historic proportions. But it is a cultural test as well, and though the country is divided, this postelection period is emerging as one of the few shared experiences in an age of social distancing and in a time when – in the cultural marker established by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, a student of how community has broken down in our time – Americans bowl alone.

Now the country that bowls alone and abhors a queue must wait. Divided by region, party and education level, it does so with a measure of social distancing that is not always practised at the supermarket.

Early Wednesday, when election night turned into the first of what almost certainly will be several postelection days, the character and disposition of the two presidential candidates was laid bare. Mr. Biden, at the time behind Mr. Trump but with hopes of triumph still very much alive, urged restraint. The President, hoping that declaring victory would make it so, pronounced the end of the contest, despite the fact millions of ballots remained uncounted.

Mr. Biden, in his third try for the presidency, is, after all, the portrait of patience; no one who witnessed his campaign implode a third of a century ago would have wagered he would be decimal points from the presidency in the third decade of the 21st century. Mr. Trump, who does not count patience among his virtues and is the master of the reflexive tweet, is, after all, the portrait of the impulsive.

Even the usual pugilists of American politics urged restraint.

When it was apparent, as election day 1992 came to a close in a gentler era, that Bill Clinton had denied George H.W. Bush a second term, the Arkansas governor cited what he called a “generous” concession call from the 41st president and saluted what he called “the mystery of our democracy.”

On Wednesday, Americans, living in an era that no one considers generous, were convulsed in the political mystery of their own political system. Around the world, too, people were riveted by the unsolved mystery of America’s latest dive into democracy.

And while the country awakened with its most important decision unresolved, it was clear that America’s divisions were widened by the irresolution and that the process of waiting – so foreign in an age of instant analysis and computer responses measured in milliseconds – was only fraying the nerves of an anxious people.

Elections are designed to resolve questions, not raise them. They are intended to bring closure rather than open wounds. For all the talk, much of it justifiable, about the frailties of American democracy in the modern age, the country and the world were settling in for the sort of long drama that in two previous instances left stains on the country’s political system.

Two decades ago, a 36-day election overtime marred by the spectacle of election officials examining partly punched “hanging chads” on paper ballots led to the Supreme Court declaring governor George W. Bush of Texas the winner over vice-president Albert Gore, who had prevailed in the popular vote. In 1876, an unresolved election between governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York, who won the popular vote, and governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, who would emerge as the 19th president, was unresolved until days before the inauguration.

Now America is witnessing its latest moment of imprecision. It is doing so in its latest, perhaps most profound, burst of impatience.

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