And it is a nation, if voter turnout levels are instructive, that was moved as never before in modern memory to stand and be counted, in defiance of contagion and ostensible suppression. Americans braved polling places in masks and gloves, hand-delivered mail ballots just in case, waited in lines that zagged and folded over themselves across whole neighborhoods — a kind of small intestines of democracy.
“I honestly can’t say I know any institution that is working,” said Aalayah Eastmond, 19, a survivor of the Parkland, Fla., massacre and a first-time voter who has spent much of the year in Washington protesting racism and police violence. “But one thing I do know that is working is the power of the people.”
How much of the recent past can be undone, and how much the electorate wants it undone, is a question no campaign can resolve in full. There is danger in any sweeping assertion about the ideals of a country that narrowly chose to follow its first Black president with the man who pushed a racist conspiracy about that president’s birthplace.
But in some ways, given the distinctiveness of the choices, the decision in this election will be especially revealing about how America sees itself and what it expects of its leaders.
In interviews this fall, voters supporting each candidate described fears that the nation would soon appear unrecognizable to them, if it was not already. This campaign, they suggested, had doubled as a national X-ray, with both sides distressed about what might turn up on the scan.
“You learn a lot about yourself and other people and the country,” said Luke Hoffman, 36, standing outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in a “Vote” mask before a recent televised forum with Mr. Biden. “The sheer polarization is terrifying.”
Katherine Smarch, 51, who traveled to Lansing, Mich., to see Eric Trump speak at a gravel pit last month, said that any pro-Trump sentiment she might express on social media was doomed to be met with taunting and hostility.