Here's Your Optimism for 2021: American Democracy (Barely) Survived Trump's Stress Test

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Here's Your Optimism for 2021: American Democracy (Barely) Survived Trump's Stress Test

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Donald Trump won the 2020 election just as he did in 2016, with an electoral college victory that came despite a significant loss in the popular vote…which, considering our current demographics, is the only way it was ever happening. That would have meant Democrats won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, but actually won the presidency in just two of them. There are a few conclusions to draw in that scenario, namely that our country is effectively gerrymandered on the national level by the electoral college, the will of the people has been stifled, and, considering the current polarized state of American politics, it will always be extremely difficult to overcome that structural disadvantage. Combined with the usual discouraging stats about poor turnout among segments of the Democratic base, you’d have a national left mired in the belief that nothing is ever going to change.

Of course, a lot of this is true even without the Trump win. The electoral college is an accidentally gerrymandered institution that favors Republicans. The House races are heavily gerrymandered toward the GOP too, as shown by the fact that Democrats managed to lose ten seats despite winning almost five million more votes nationally. The Senate races are not technically gerrymandered, but the Senate itself is an example of an imbalanced institution, where small states—i.e. the Republican ones—are over-represented because of the fact that land counts for more than people, making it ridiculously tough for Democrats to ever secure a majority. And of course, gerrymandering runs rampant on the state level, and it favors Republicans overwhelmingly. Everywhere you look, Democrats get more votes, and Republicans win more seats. The Dems could stand to do a much better job with their messaging—five million votes is still far too close against the death cult party—but make no mistake: this is a bureaucratic asphyxiation of popular will.

Those problems persist. But what Trump attempted to do, both during his presidency and especially afterward, was to blow the entire system into smithereens and usher in…well, who knows what? For all its flaws, American democracy is preferable to the vacuum that follows its disappearance, especially when the vacuum is provoked by an aspiring fascist (and when the people who support him have all the guns). What happened after Trump’s loss in November was particularly frightening, even when much of it was predicted in the lead-up. In short, the sum total of his efforts were geared at de-legitimizing our elections, and not just in one state. Across America, he and his lawyers attempted to invent cases of fraud that would somehow cohere into legal truth and reverse as many state results as it took until he could declare himself the winner.

Like many of Trump’s gambits, it looked and sounded ridiculous at times, but the ultimate goal was anything but absurd. To nullify the fair results of our elections, after the votes have been counted and re-counted, goes beyond the structural integrity issues that have plagued us for years. This is something more—a declaration that elections themselves don’t matter, that the veneer of democracy has been burned to ashes, and that from now on our leadership will be decided by the perception of whoever is strongest. In some places, like Wisconsin where one conservative justice broke ranks in a 4-3 decision, it was rejected by the thinnest of margins, and only because of recent changes in that court’s makeup. Ludicrous as these challenges may have seemed, they were a very real and very existential threat.

And even if they didn’t work in the courts, they have worked to some extent in popular consciousness, at least among his supporters. A recent Fox News poll showed that 70 percent of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump. Many Republican Senators refuse to call Biden the president-elect, or admit that he won, and it’s not because they actually believe Trump has a case; it’s because they know where the voters’ hearts are, and they’re held hostage by a group of people who are intensely loyal to Trump. For his part, Trump continues to stoke divisions and rail against the unfair outcome from his Twitter account, and—no surprise—doesn’t seem to care at all where any of this leads, or the consequences it might hold for his country and its people.

Still, if you’re looking for optimism, it’s here: The electoral college ratified the election, the courts are rejecting Trump’s appeals almost unanimously, and though there are still a few desperate moves left for Team Trump (“alternative electors,” for one), it’s clear that our democratic system, flawed as it may be, has stood up to these stress tests for now.

It’s impossible to talk about this silver lining without a thousand caveats, and there are plenty of obstacles to wade through in months and years to come, but there is still some solace in the idea that Trump didn’t destroy us completely. Sure, you could argue that he set the wheels in motion, or laid the groundwork for democracy’s end, but for now the American system has shown a bit more stubbornness to collapse than we might have feared.

As points of pride go, this one rings a little bit hollow, but maybe it shouldn’t. Any dream of a future in which we manage to meaningfully combat climate change, or institute a national healthcare system, or pass any progressive legislation akin to the New Deal, all depend on some form of basic governmental structure remaining in place through which these things are possible. Our country has clearly lost the thread when it comes to its own political competence and self-image, but the mechanisms are still in place to fix it, even if it feels unlikely now. That means hope is preserved, and there were moments in November 2016, and too often in the four years that followed, when even that seemed in doubt. As 2020 comes to a close in America, you have to take what you can get, and the continuing possibility of hope is some consolation for the Trump years.

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