Leonard Pitts: Happy endings in U.S. history are not guaranteed

America is not guaranteed.

There is, in other words, nothing foreordained about this country someday returning to anything approximating normal. That’s important to keep in mind as we await results of the most critical U.S. election since 1860, when Abraham Lincoln came to power in an America pulling apart. Not unlike the America we live in now.

When you read history in books, events can seem as if they were destined all along. It becomes easy to think, albeit subconsciously, that the happy ending was inevitable -- if only because the unhappy one is unthinkable. So, of course the Union routed the Confederacy. Of course the Great Depression eased. Of course we won World War II. Of course.

But when you read the contemporaneous accounts, the letters and news stories written as American boys were being chewed up at Shiloh, as American families were being evicted from their homes, as American ships and sailors were burning at Pearl Harbor, there is no “of course.” In the desperate and uncertain time before news becomes history, there is only the sobering realization of how much there is to lose -- and how easily it could all be lost.

We are living in such a time right now.

It is a moment long in coming, a reckoning long deferred, a showdown between the better angels of our nature and the worst, and we have marched toward it blithely, numbly, concession by concession, deferral by deferral, for decades. We saw test scores fall, our children growing dumber by the school year. We saw income inequality rise, a 40-hour workweek insufficient to guarantee a roof over one’s head. We saw Americans retreat to information silos, until alternate realities became less a comic-book trope than a fact of daily life. We saw tribal hatreds that once shamed decent people given prime-time slots on cable news. We saw critical thinking eroded, statesmanship debased, civil debate denigrated, bizarre conspiracies elevated. We saw America become the Stupid Giant of planet Earth.

And we did little to stop it. Instead, we routinely assured ourselves that we were -- to misquote Sean Hannity only slightly -- the bestest, greatest, most gosh darn wonderful country God ever created on the face of planet Earth. Even as our greatness rusted and our wonderfulness began to tarnish.

Until here we are in the Year of Our Lord 2020. Our president is objectively the most witless and venal man ever to occupy that office, we live in the grip of a deadly plague, fascism is on our very doorstep, and 40 percent of us think all that is just fine.

Someday, this news, too, will become history. But if there’s a happy ending here, it will not be because that was inevitable. No, it will be because of what we do, right here and right now, in polling places across the country.

Not that anything that happens this week will be a magic bullet for what ails America. It bears repeating: 40 percent of us are fine with this disaster. Sending the present president home -- or to prison -- does nothing to mitigate that. Those people will be a force -- which is to say, a problem -- for years to come. But if not a magic bullet, getting rid of this guy would at least be a promising start.

America is a decision, an amalgam of the choices we make. Greatness and goodness, liberty and justice, all the virtues we like to think of as defining our national character, none of them comes to us just for standing here. No, each generation must earn them, renew them, vindicate them for itself. That’s the task -- and privilege -- handed down to us by our forebears. They saved this country more than once.

It’s our turn now.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com