Which do you think will win “Word of the Year” for 2020: doom-scroll or catastrophize?
The closer we draw to tomorrow — what would have been known, in the quaint-seeming past of just a year or two ago, as “Election Day” — the deeper these sorts of strange words resonate.
I’ve spent a good chunk of the past two months reading through a way-more-than-healthy serving of fearful scenarios and projections about what’s to come in the weeks and months after Nov. 3rd, and learning about challenges to the peaceful transition of power in other countries and times, such as Belarus right now and the Eastern European Color Revolutions, and a host of examples from Latin American and African history.
The surprising conclusion: I’ve come away more hopeful than when I started out.
It’s no surprise, of course, that many people are feeling far from hopeful or confident. The combination of an unchecked global pandemic, physical and social isolation, economic collapse, racial oppression, unprecedented wealth inequality, intense political polarization and disinformation as a deliberate strategy of governing has pretty well broken most folks’ spirits already this year. And that was before all the preemptive attacks against voters’ democratic will that we’ve seen from President Trump and some of his supporters.
How, exactly, is our democracy supposed to survive?
There are about a thousand different plausible, scary scenarios to contemplate, in thinking through the sequence of political events and legal challenges and people’s actions that may play out in the days and weeks after Nov. 3.
State and federal courts are taking multiple actions daily in response to voting-rights cases, at least some of them leading to disenfranchisement of rightfully eligible voters. The rulings are likely to continue through Nov. 3rd and long beyond. White-supremacist groups — some of them given direct encouragement by the president — continue to threaten violence if Trump isn’t immediately declared the winner.
It’s anybody’s guess what will happen with the Electoral College, the beginning of the new Congress and Inauguration Day if we have an openly-contested election result. You could easily spend every waking hour of the day reading new material (“doomscrolling”) about and trying to prepare yourself for the many possible scenarios — “catastrophizing.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves, in this strange and extraordinary moment, the fate of our “republic, if we can keep it” is more uncertain today than it has been since the Civil War.
A quick review of a couple of the bad-news points of agreement among most election experts about what to expect Nov. 4th and beyond, unless there’s a landslide. These aren’t “catastrophizing.” They are rational, broad-consensus expectations:
- We won’t know the full results of the election right away or soon, due both to states’ legally-prescribed vote-counting timelines and possible new court rulings interfering with vote-counting.
- Trump and his supporters will almost certainly declare victory right away on the night of Nov. 3rd, at a time when both the local officials in thousands of different communities all across the country who we entrust to administer our elections and most major news organizations will still be waiting for complete, official results.
- At the same time that Trump and his supporters declare victory, they will challenge — in court, in traditional and social media, and possibly also in the streets — the continued counting of legitimately-cast ballots.
It’s scary, yes. But given how widely-shared and reasonable these expectations are it feels a lot better to look at it squarely than to bury your head in a pillow and pretend it isn’t real.
But it’s not just that sizing things up for what they are feels better than magical thinking.
Like I said, it’s actually that all the reading and learning I’ve been doing over the last couple months have led me to an unexpected surge of confidence.
Not just hope or optimism, but confidence.
First of all, because in a democracy, we the voters understand that it’s our job to pick our political representatives. Politicians don’t get to pick their voters. Every available indicator suggests that millions of people who haven’t voted in recent elections or haven’t voted ever before are choosing to exercise their right to shape our future by casting a ballot in this election. No matter how much voter suppression Trump and his Republican-appointed allies in the federal courts might engage in, the overwhelming majority of Americans want to have their say, because they understand — across wide differences of party and ideology — that that is how our system is supposed to work.
As regular citizens, our first job in the days and weeks after the election is, very simply, to make sure every vote gets counted. And there are too many of us — again, across parties and backgrounds and beliefs — who will see desperate efforts to stop the counting of votes for exactly what they are: attempts to overthrow the will of the people.
The confidence comes also from what I’ve learned about direct challenges to the democratic order and peaceful transitions of power in other countries and times. In just about every country that’s ever preserved democracy in the face of a frontal challenge by anti-democratic and authoritarian forces, you see the same simple playbook for what it took for the will of the people to prevail:
- Lots and lots of people took to the streets, and in doing so
- They were both peaceful and hopeful; and,
- They invited everyone in.
We are going to need lots of people who have never participated in a street protest in their lives to take a stand — to start thinking that this is the time for them to come out in defense of our democracy. The only way that happens is if we make it clear right from the beginning that we’re inviting all those people in — that these mobilizations are not just for the sorts of people who usually show up to social-justice actions, and they also aren’t for Democrats. They’re for anyone who believes in and wants to protect and defend democracy.
If you are a local election judge or a voting-rights lawyer, you have a critical role to play over the next few weeks. But for all the rest of us, what’s needed to meet the challenges of this moment turns out to be incredibly straightforward. It may be far from easy to play that role — especially if we see anti-democratic and white-supremacist groups engaging in acts of intimidation and violence, and especially for anyone whose age or health condition makes them especially susceptible to COVID-19, or whose race or other aspects of their identity make them especially likely to be targeted by bigoted extremists. But it is surprisingly easy to understand what the role is that many of us need to play, for democracy to prevail.
If enough people — especially those of us with privilege and health — show up, even in a scenario where court rulings and political attacks and even intimidation and violence conspire to stop people’s votes from being counted then we will not only survive this challenge with our Constitution intact, but move our country forward into an era of multi-racial democracy and a commitment to decency and shared prosperity.
In the meantime, during these final hours of voting, there’s nothing better or more therapeutic you can do than contact other voters, in hopes of delivering the sort of historic landslide that is the only realistic way we’ll avoid a direct challenge to our democratic system over the coming weeks. “Chop wood; carry water” is a famous Zen Buddhist encapsulation of the whole path to enlightenment. Just do the simple things right in front of you that need to be done. In a similar vein I recommend the alternative practice of “Dial phone number; talk to voter.” You’ll feel a heckuva lot better about things if you do.
But make sure, as you call and text and persuade and turn out fellow voters, that you also get some decent nights of sleep, exercise and good food in your belly. We might need to be well-rested and ready to show up in ways we haven’t ever had to before, starting Wednesday and for as many days or weeks as it takes to ensure a peaceful transition of power. To show up for a scary moment feeling resolute and peaceful, strong and hopeful, in huge numbers.
And if we do, we won’t just end this dark chapter in our history. We’ll push past it into a better future where we face our common challenges — and they are severe right now, no question — with a government that is truly of, by and for the people.