Democracy has been battered and bruised but Joe Biden’s victory shows it has survived

A Secret Service officer on patrol at the White House in Washington yesterday. President Donald Trump has yet to concede the 2020 presidential election after Joe Biden was declared the winner. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

My wife and I were at home a little after 11 on Saturday morning, and I was wrapping a few presents for our grandson’s birthday while keeping an eye on MSNBC, the cable news network, when the bulletin flashed that a Pennsylvania victory was confirmed for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, putting them over the top in electoral votes, and the election was finally called for the Democratic ticket.

Almost immediately, the streets outside our Brooklyn window erupted in cheers, horns honked from what seemed like every car that drove by, and spontaneous joyful noise burst forth from pots and pans, bells, castanets – whatever people had at hand.  Seizing a frying pan and a metal spoon, we threw open a window and joined in it, then took to the streets as it continued for hours, with families marching hand in hand holding homemade signs, and neighbors dancing to sidewalk musicians and window boomboxes — an incredible feeling of release, solidarity and community, where years of pent-up anxiety and fear were transformed by the energy of one’s fellow humans into joy.  These scenes also took place in most American cities, and indeed around the globe. It is a day I will never forget.

The main thing, the absolutely crucial thing, has been accomplished.  Donald Trump’s Presidency will be ended.  Most likely, true to form, he will fly back to Florida without observing any of the civilities and norms of Presidential transition, or he may need to be forced to leave by the Secret Service.  But he will be gone.  Democracy in the United States has been battered and bruised the last four years, but it will have gone to the brink and survived.  That is no small matter, and no accident:  the preparation, innovation, coordination and mobilization that started the day after Trump’s inauguration with the women’s marches was sustained into electoral action, led by women, communities of color and all those most targeted and endangered by Trump, and it paid off.

Now we sort through how we got here and how we climb out of it.  It is a clear and convincing victory – both in the popular vote, in which Biden broke all previous records, and in the Electoral College, our anti-democratic relic of the slaveholder era in which the vote of a white Wyoming rancher in Laramie counts for three times as much as that of a Black cab driver in Buffalo, New York. Had the two tallies not coincided this year – if for the fourth time in this still-young century Republicans won the Presidency while running second in the popular vote – it would have been hard to sustain the veneer of legitimacy that has masked a growing trend toward minority rule in America.

Many more Americans have been driven by the dramatic stakes of our politics in recent years to become virtual data geeks, and there will be a lot to analyze about the 2020 election.  Why did so many of the polls get it so wrong – again?  Democrats, heeding public health concerns in the COVID crisis, largely eschewed (in favor of digital alternatives) the traditional door-knocking, person-to-person community organizing that builds trust and gains votes, while Republicans felt no such inhibitions, making late gains in voter registrations.  Did that play a part? While clearly years of investment in organizing infrequent voters yielded historic Democratic gains in Arizona and Georgia, why did more Mexican-Americans in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, along the southern border, give their votes to Trump, who launched his 2016 candidacy with a racist attack on Mexican immigrants and whose signature issue was building a wall to keep them out?  Why did higher numbers of Black, Muslim and gay men vote for someone whose policies seem aimed at their very lives?  Why, indeed, did Trump follow Biden with the second-highest vote total in U.S. history, after the mountains of lies, cruelty, corruption and incompetence we have lived through?

Let’s get all the data, we need, surely, and retool strategies as needed.  But these are fundamentally cultural and moral questions, which go to the kind of country we are. Our sense of ourselves – many would say our cherished illusions about ourselves – have been deeply shaken.  Just as the Irish in the last decade, roused by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the moral authority of the Catholic Church, looked deeply at themselves and came out the other side a very different country, we are at such a moment in America. But our reckoning, more than that of any other country, has deep repercussions for the rest of the world, who look on at us with dread, unable to cast a vote in matters deeply affecting their lives.

The continuing murders of Black men and women by police, and the uprisings that followed this summer, caused many white Americans to finally take a look in the mirror at the deep roots of American racism and their own complicity. Those overdue and ongoing reflections build on the shock of the 2016 election and now, Trump’s continuing strength, even in defeat.

Too many Americans have found in Trump what they are looking for, either because he validates their bigotry or because they are willing to overlook his manifest failings since they see him delivering on the classic Republican the anti-tax and regulation agenda they elevate above all else.  And far too many Americans, stoked ceaselessly by Trump’s tweets – which seem almost certain to continue and intensify now that he will be driven from office – are ready to harass, intimidate and take up arms to protect the patriarchal, white supremacist vision of America that they believed, at long last, had finally found a sympathizer in the Oval Office. Trump may move from center stage, but Trumpism seems alive and well, and will color the stances of Republican officeholders and aspirants and threaten discourse and public safety even more as it moves into offense.

Among the disappointments of this election, despite its crowning achievement, is the failure so far to retake control of the U.S. Senate, whose final composition will be determined by two runoff elections in Georgia on January 5, just two days after the new Congress is sworn in and two weeks before Biden and Harris are inaugurated. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, freshly elected to a seventh term, is a master obstructionist, and if he retains the gavel, Biden and the Democrats will have a very hard time carrying out the progressive reform agenda they ran on, and that the nation so urgently needs.  Many reversals of Trump policies can be accomplished by vigorous use of executive orders, and there may be room for enacting stronger COVID relief and infrastructure investments, but the overdue attention to structural reforms of the U.S. economy – whose deep inequities were further laid bare by the pandemic – and democracy itself will be an uphill climb, particularly since the Republican Party is committed at every turn to making it harder to vote and has installed a Supreme Court majority and scores of lower federal judges in lifetime posts precisely as a backstop against any reforms that Democrats may manage to make when in power.  At the state level, Trump’s continuing strength prevented any further Democratic gains, so Republicans retain a strong hand in many states to rig the decennial drawing of legislative districts to protect and expand their power.

The resurgent Democratic left, overcome by Biden in the Presidential primaries but who united behind him and whose power pushed his platform in a more progressive direction, will press for strong and defining fights on a host of issues whatever the odds.  Everything we know about Biden, aside from the decency and character that caused even skeptics like myself to find him well suited to the electoral moment, tells us he is inclined more toward common ground and compromise than maximalist stances and partisan warfare.  The daily Tweet-fueled drama of the Trump years will be ebbing, but the fights over what progressive government can do with razor-thin legislative margins will provide plenty of drama in the months and years to come.