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Don’t panic: Democracy is holding up

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, President Trump declared that he had won re-election, said any indications otherwise amounted to a “fraud on the American public,” and promised to go to the Supreme Court to get the election results reversed if they go against him. It was an appalling spectacle, vividly reminding me of one of the many reasons I hope Trump does not prevail once the count is complete. And it threw many people I know back into their pre-election panic about putsches and coups and incipient fascism.

But not me. Today, I’m not panicked about the health or safety of our democracy. And you shouldn’t be either.

First of all, the speech elicited immediate and substantial pushback from numerous Republican voices. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chided that there was no basis for Trump’s claims of victory or of fraud, and that the president undermined his own credibility in making them. Meanwhile, as the vote count shifted in Biden’s favor in Wisconsin, former Gov. Scott Walker poured cold water on the Trump campaign’s hopes of a recount, arguing that the state’s tally, while narrow, was too clearly in Biden’s favor for a recount to change the outcome. This is precisely the behavior any small-d democrat would want to see in such circumstances.

Second, there is no evidence that current Republican officeholders in all the as-yet undecided states are acting to interfere with or undermine the ongoing count. Republicans control the state legislatures in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Counting is proceeding in all states without incident. They control the entire state government in Georgia: legislature, governor, and secretary of state. No one has cast any doubt on the legitimacy of the count there, or questioned the veracity of the explanations for the delay: an equipment problem in Gwinnett County and a burst pipe in Fulton County. These are the people who Trump would have to rely on to corrupt the election, but their actions point to the opposite: integrity.

Third, while Trump is already making moves to halt the counting in Michigan and Pennsylvania, it’s important to bear in mind the limited nature of those moves in their intent and likely effect. In Michigan, Biden is already in the lead, so any halt freezes his advantage. The Trump campaign is calling for a pause to allow greater observation of the count, a nearly meaningless demand since observers are already present, and which in any event doesn’t directly challenge any ballots. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the challenge is to the dates by which mail-in ballots will be accepted — a potentially more consequential challenge, but still extremely limited since there are already potentially enough ballots in hand to give Biden the state (assuming the uncounted ballots split similarly to those already counted). Regardless, both challenges are proceeding appropriately through the courts, not through corrupt means. Legal hardball isn’t pretty, but it’s a legitimate part of the democratic process.

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Meanwhile, there are at least two states where the Trump campaign is counting on as-yet uncounted ballots to turn the tide in their favor: Arizona, which has a Republican governor and legislature, and Nevada, where both the governor and legislature are in Democratic hands. Biden is currently in the lead in both, but as-yet uncounted ballots could potentially flip the states back into the GOP column (indeed, Biden’s Arizona margin has been shrinking steadily as counting has continued, just as he has caught up in the Midwest). A campaign could perfectly well ask for a recount in one close state and not another, or make expansive arguments in one state’s court and restrictive ones in another. But as a public-relations strategy, it’s not very credible to say that it’s fraud to count absentee ballots when they are likely to go Democratic, but also fraud to not count them when they are likely to go Republican.

Of course, maybe the argument doesn’t have to be credible. Maybe the people who want to believe that the election was stolen are going to believe it regardless of the evidence or plausibility. But that’s arguably a fourth reason not to panic — because it suggests that Trump’s words are not driving these beliefs, but reflecting them. And, indeed, that has frequently been the case. On election night 2008, Republican nominee John McCain forcefully shut down the argument — made by a supporter — that Barack Obama was an illegitimate and un-American candidate. Not only did that not quash those views, they grew stronger with time — and ultimately became a key vehicle for Donald Trump to raise his profile with the Republican base.

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But isn’t that an even better reason to panic? If the Republican base won’t accept the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency even if Trump concedes, isn’t that a catastrophe? At the moment, I don’t think so. After all, notwithstanding all the insane beliefs swirling around, and notwithstanding the incredible logistical challenges of holding a national election during a pandemic, we pulled it off — with record turnout, no less. Moreover, the pre-election fears of widespread violence by the left and intimidation by the right proved largely chimerical.

We should pause to give ourselves credit for that fact. Because in the end, democracy doesn’t depend on us all agreeing, or all being competent, or all getting along, or even all being sane. It depends on our willingness to continue being part of a single polity even when all these things are not true.

Let me tell you a story that perhaps explains why I am feeling more irenic than a lot of other commentators today. I spent Election Day working the polls deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, in a predominantly Russian neighborhood that is a Trump stronghold. It was chaos. I saw a host of violations of protocol — tags applied incorrectly; poll workers inappropriately coaching voters in how to mark their ballots; machines malfunctioning repeatedly. Interpersonal animosity got so heated that at one point the coordinator in charge of the polling site called the police on her own deputy, then, when the police left, retreated into the kitchen muttering Queeg-like about how everyone else was against her. Voters, meanwhile, occasionally burst out in either triumphant pro-Trump exclamation or dark warnings that this was our last chance to stop the American Hitler.

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But at the end of the day, we held the election. We counted the votes. No one was disenfranchised. No one was intimidated. Multiple voters praised us for running such a professional operation (in response to which I had to stifle my instinctive laughter). I can’t say the count was completed without incident — people were screaming at each other the whole time, and it took far, far too long for so few votes — but it was completed accurately, and with no attempt by anyone to interfere with the tabulation. All the anger and frustration and incompetence reflected the deep dysfunction of a group of people who were still, all of them, trying to make things work as correctly and fairly as they knew how.

A fellow poll worker suggested that I write a play about what we had seen, a dark comic satire of American democracy. But I was, if not exactly moved, weirdly encouraged. This, I thought, is what American democracy actually looks like, and likely always has. It’s chaos, but it works.

The election results aren’t satisfying because nobody is getting what they wanted, and any victory that emerges will be limited and hedged. But that’s because the country is genuinely and passionately divided, something that, if we were paying attention, we knew before the election, notwithstanding polls that inaccurately suggested that the divide was tilted decisively toward the Democrats.

That divide worries me — it worries me deeply. If we can’t even get a two-toned sweatshirt to line up properly, how on Earth are we ever going to come together as a country to address our deepest problems? That’s what I’ve be fretting over for four years now, and I’ll continue to fret over for years to come.

But worry isn’t panic. We should take a moment to recognize that, in the most crucial ways, the system worked — and worked about was well as it ever does. And then we should roll up our sleeves and figure out how to make it work better next time.