Why I’m optimistic about Election Day — but pessimistic about our nation’s fate

2012 NASA photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at GBH News.

One week from today, it will be over. Maybe we’ll know who won. Maybe they’ll still be counting. Maybe angry demonstrators will be marching in the streets. No longer, though, will we be checking FiveThirtyEight 15 times a day, tracking every up, down and sideways movement.

For most of the past four years I’ve felt pessimistic about the short term but optimistic about the long term. Now I feel just the opposite — optimistic about what the next few years may bring but pessimistic about the fate of our country. Let me explain.

As an opinion journalist, I have the privilege of being able to say what I think. I don’t have to take a neutral stance on issues I’m writing about. And I most certainly don’t have to take a neutral stance on President Donald Trump, a racist demagogue who, if given another term, will continue to move us down the road toward authoritarianism. I was pessimistic during most of Trump’s presidency because of the damage he was doing to our democratic norms. I was optimistic because I believed that, together, we would get past this dark moment.

But now I’m optimistic in the short run because, according to all indications, former Vice President Joe Biden is going to beat Trump by a substantial if not an overwhelming margin. It also seems likely that the Democrats will take over the Senate, meaning that, at least for the next two years, the president and Congress will be able to get a few things done. Biden was not my first choice — something I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of people say. But he is a caring and decent person, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, puts the Democrats in a strong position for 2024 and beyond.

So why am I pessimistic about the long run? Because of the horrible mess Biden will be inheriting — assuming he wins. A deadly pandemic that the Trump administration has simply given up on, according to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. A broken economy. A refusal by too many of us to confront racism. And, above all, a fractured culture, with about 40% of the country believing all kinds of outlandish and dangerous things, right up to and including the ugly notion that Democrats are involved in some sort of secret pedophile ring.

Then there is our dysfunctional political system. We’ve learned a lot during the past few years about flaws that we may not have thought about before. The founders didn’t like the idea of political parties, and they designed the Constitution so that the three branches would hold one another accountable if any of them got out of line. But that presumed nonpartisan government. What we’ve got instead is a Congress that will not hold the president accountable because the Senate and the White House are both controlled by the same party. Never was that more obvious than when the Senate took up the House’s strong impeachment case against Trump and dismissed it without even calling any witnesses, and with every Republican except Sen. Mitt Romney voting to acquit the president.

I’ve often complained about the Electoral College and the Senate, both of which are constructed in such a way as to favor the low-population states and thus give the Republicans an artificial advantage. Over the weekend, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of “How Democracies Die” (one of the most important books of the past several years), proposed abolishing the Electoral College and tilting the Senate a bit toward majority rule by granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico.

“In America today, … the majority does not govern. This disjuncture cries out for reform. We must double down on democracy,” they wrote in The New York Times, adding: “Not only would ending minority rule be inherently democratic, but, importantly, it would also encourage the Republican Party to abandon its destructive course of radicalization.”

That last truth is not spoken out loud nearly enough. The Democrats, for all their flaws, remain a normal political party. The Republicans, by contrast, have gone off the rails. According to The Guardian, a new study finds that the party of Lincoln “has become dramatically more illiberal in the past two decades and now more closely resembles ruling parties in autocratic societies” such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey and India. We need a responsible center-right party, but we no longer have one.

Those trends will continue post-Trump. By refusing to approve a COVID relief package that even Trump kind of sort of seems to want, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is sowing the seeds for gridlock. Having run up the deficit to unprecedented levels by passing a massive tax cut for the rich, the Republicans are going to yammer about the deficit incessantly if Biden wins and do everything they can to destroy his presidency. We can only hope that our ever-malleable press doesn’t go along with this cynical game.

The Republicans are also getting ready to question Biden’s legitimacy, arguing that Trump easily would have won re-election were it not for the pandemic and the concomitant economic collapse. Don’t believe it. As the RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows, Biden has led Trump by a significant margin since October 2019. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s approval ratings have been under water almost from Inauguration Day in 2017. Trump’s grotesque response to COVID may have hurt him at the margins, but he always faced a steep uphill fight to win re-election.

In the second and final debate last week, Biden promised to be president of the entire country, not just of his supporters. “I represent all of you whether you voted for me or against me,” he said. It was the sort of statement that would have seemed clichéd and devoid of content in any other campaign. But given that his opponent is Trump, his message of unity would amount to a complete reversal.

Can a President Biden really bring us together? Can he overcome the weaponized propaganda of Fox News, the bizarro world that is QAnon and — let’s face it — the broken promises of previous Democratic administrations that contributed so much to the anger that enabled Trump’s victory in the first place?

In other words, can Biden capitalize on the short-term optimism that will greet his victory over Trump and translate that into a reason to be hopeful? It is an exceedingly tall order, and I’m not sure that anyone would be up to the task.

But the alternative is unthinkable.

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