On Keeping Faith in Democracy
It’s the day after what is likely to be one of the most consequential elections in our lifetimes, and after four years of nascent autocracy, it’s still not finished. Votes are still being counted in critical tipping-point states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, and the race for control of the Senate is, as ever, a neck-and-neck fight for a one-vote majority. We went into the last day of the vote on Tuesday wary yet hopeful that this national uncertainty would end with a decisive victory one way or another. How, I couldn’t help but wonder, could a country even come close to keeping in power a government that’s overseen the deaths of over two-hundred and thirty-thousand Americans in an ongoing pandemic? It shouldn’t be startling to see things this close, knowing America, and yet.
So, with the outcome still to be determined and an anxious nation on the edge of its seat, I want to remind you that we have good reason to hope. Four years ago, to borrow a phrase from Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War, it felt like the lights were going off all over the United States. Today, even if all we proved was our inability to budge, the sun does keep rising again. Pay attention to that part of your day tomorrow. I promise you’ll see some variation of what I do every morning. Your own unique version. Same sun.
We backed away, even if only slightly, from the brink. If, and it remains an if, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. takes residence in the People’s house in January, we can at least expect a return to a less harrowing gridlock in the legislature and an administration that’s not going to make a concerted effort to hurt people. That is an improvement by any reasonable measure.
The landslide many of us were hoping for didn’t materialize, and the result offers a far more sobering and ambivalent picture of where this country is after four years of the never-ending Trump show. There was no wholesale repudiation of a Trumpism still latched onto the GOP’s back like a mind-controlling parasite, and the president’s closest enablers kept their seats. But even if all we did was regain some lost ground — and it looks relatively sure that we will — we still moved forward. And it means we still can.
Businesses across the land boarded up their storefronts while additional security walls went up around the White House, but there was no violence at the polls, no riots in the streets, no cities ablaze. The day passed, as it has passed for most of the country’s history, in peace. Predictions of the imminent fall of the American republic proved, yet again, wildly exaggerated. Even our own native-born White supremacist terrorists, the so-called “Patriot” movement, failed to live up to their boasts. The sun rose on November 4, 2020 without calls to arms. Our traditions, if not our Constitutional checks and balances, proved more resilient than we give them credit for. We voted in ways we’ve never voted before, in the middle of a mass pandemic and a year of unrelenting civil unrest, and it all went… normally.
What happened, rather, was that Americans did what Americans do, what Americans have been doing in one form or another since 1788: we participated in our government as designed. Our democratic tradition, which has been feeling pretty shaky for the forty years that have somehow passed since 2016, stood its ground, because it’s a lot harder to change an entire people than to get a few hundred lawmakers to go along with overt autocracy. We’re the world’s oldest functioning democracy, and — in ways different from most of the world’s other democracies — the vote is in our bones. Regardless of the outcome of this election, that’s still true.
This isn’t to ignore the dangers, or pretend they aren’t there; we do have an electoral system that grants disproportionate power to roughly 30% of the population, and voter suppression remains a very real threat. Extremism does have a toehold in the United States, one that isn’t going away anytime soon, and the GOP’s open flirtation with autocracy, having failed to be thoroughly disavowed at the polls, will likely continue. Our system of government needs deep reform, a hard sell in the best of times that will only face more implacable opposition, and without a Democratic majority in the Senate — which remains a possibility — it’s going to be even harder.
And then there’s the other dangers. The pandemic is still spreading. Systemic racism is very real no matter what anyone would love to believe about today. My head just won’t work that well in the sand. And it’s not. We’ve stolen over five-hundred children from their families who have no means of reuniting. Feel that? They’re children. The road ahead is long and fraught, and, while we shouldn’t have needed it, this election was yet another reminder of the deep issues our country must reckon with. But we must have hope and we have to keep moving.
We’ve shown we have no appetite for political violence over peaceful voting. Our darkest fears proved unfounded, even if our brightest hopes did, too. All that’s left now is to finish counting the votes — and move forward.
So let’s look there. Forward.