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Trump’s Out. But The Cracks In The Foundation Of Our Democracy Remain

A supporter of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Vice President-elect Kamala Harris poses for a selfie near the security fence that surrounded the White House November 08, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A supporter of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Vice President-elect Kamala Harris poses for a selfie near the security fence that surrounded the White House November 08, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The ascension of Joe Biden to the presidency took the form of a tense and long-overdue civics lesson for America.

We learned that an “election” is not some abstract televised event. It is a human process by which individual citizens exercise power over the destiny of their nation. The tight margins and protracted vote count revealed this process in real time.

We watched as citizens lined up at the polls. We saw their ballots delivered to county clerks. We peeked into the rooms where poll workers — under the watchful eye of observers from both major parties — counted those votes, one by one.

There is reason for hope in all this. Despite the challenges of voting during an uncontained pandemic, and the GOP’s relentless voter suppression efforts, which included attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, nearly 160 million Americans exercised their franchise – that’s 66%, the highest rate of voter participation in a century.

Donald Trump has been democratically evicted from the White House. With any justice, he will face the legal consequences of his life as a white-collar criminal.

Poll workers count ballots inside the Maricopa County Election Department in Phoenix, Arizona on November 5, 2020. (Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images)
Poll workers count ballots inside the Maricopa County Election Department in Phoenix, Arizona on November 5, 2020. (Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images)

But what’s equally apparent, is that the forces that led to Trumpism — for-profit demagoguery, shameless lying, the essential nihilism of power politics divorced from the will of the people — remain entrenched.

This election took American democracy down to its studs. What became visible are the deep cracks in our national foundation. These cracks are not ideological or cultural. They are structural.

President-Elect Biden has talked, from the beginning of this candidacy, about a fight for the “soul of the nation.” And I applaud his healing rhetoric. But I also believe our national restoration requires us to take on these structural fractures. Will he be able to solve all of these structural issues? No. But we ought to be clear about what we’re up against.

The first and most obvious structural problem is the Electoral College, an antiquated system devised to protect the interests of small states and slave owners. It is a direct repudiation of our most sacred principle: equal representation under the law. One person equals one vote.

A majority of Americans (61% according to a recent Gallup poll) want to abolish it. Most of us are tired of feeling that our voices are irrelevant, as candidates scramble to appeal to voters in a handful of swing states. Twice in the past five elections (2000 and 2016), our electoral system has directly subverted the will of the majority of people.

The entire Trump regime — the cruelty, the corruption, the lethal incompetence, all of it — arises from a system in which the candidate who lost by 3 million votes was awarded 100% of the presidency. That’s not undemocratic; it’s anti-democratic.

Leaders and activists should stop normalizing this insanity and support the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is a few states short of tossing the Electoral College on history’s trash heap.

This election took American democracy down to its studs. What became visible are the deep cracks in our national foundation.

The second structural issue is the U.S. Senate itself, which has become a fundamentally corrupt institution. If you are wondering why our government cannot pass laws that are looked upon favorably by the majority of our citizens — sensible gun control, taxing billionaires, fighting climate change, protecting voting rights — the reason is the U.S. Senate, which grants 600,000 voters in Wyoming the same power as 40 million voters in California.

The “majority” that Sen. Mitch McConnell used to block virtually everything President Obama hoped to accomplish, and which he will use to stifle Biden’s ambitions, isn’t a majority at all. Right now, Senate Democrats represent 20 million more voters than Republicans.

“Let’s give each other a chance,” Biden all but pleaded, in his acceptance speech Saturday night. "We have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies.”

These are fine and noble sentiments. But gridlock isn’t some inevitable outgrowth of political division. It is a monstrously cynical strategy McConnell and his colleagues have pursued for years. Break government, then run against government. The fallout of this strategy has been staggering.  One example: Trump and McConnell worked together to radicalize the federal judiciary, and appointed three Supreme Court Justices, all of whom seemed poised to rule against the interests of most Americans.

If Biden and his allies want to break this toxic cycle, they need to stop indulging in the fantasy that they can induce GOP leaders to compromise, and call them out publicly for what they are: a cowardly, corporatist minority.

Obviously, Democrats should pour every ounce of political muscle they can into winning the runoff elections for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia in January, including urging soon-to-be-eligible voters to register. The argument those candidates should make is simple: a vote for the incumbents is a vote for gridlock, and a vote against $15 minimum wage, economic relief, protection for those with pre-existing conditions, etc.

Regardless of the outcome, Democrats – should they achieve a majority in the Senate next year, or in 2022 — should seek fair representation in the Senate for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico (if its residents favor statehood), and pursue reform for the judiciary, both by expanding the court and establishing term limits. 

[G]ridlock isn’t some inevitable outgrowth of political division. It is a monstrously cynical strategy McConnell and his colleagues have pursued for years.

In the same vein of equal representation, President-elect Biden and Democrats should also fight to eradicate gerrymandering -- which is likely to grow more extreme given the Republican tilt in state legislatures and the judiciary -- and voter suppression.

None of this is rocket science. It’s basic math. America should be making it easier to vote, not harder, with automatic voter registration, and expanded early and mail-in voting.

Will the right-wing media machine go crazy? Of course.

Which is why Biden and his allies should push to regulate news outlets and social media platforms that profit by pumping out propaganda. At least some of the 70 million votes Trump won can be attributed to a media ecosystem that allows people to inhabit a reality bubble crafted by self-serving demagogues. Inflammatory disinformation is a hot product in an unregulated attention economy.

A supporter of President-elect Joe Biden shows a calendar with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on cover outside the Chase Center where Biden addressed the nation November 07, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A supporter of President-elect Joe Biden shows a calendar with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on cover outside the Chase Center where Biden addressed the nation November 07, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The deranged young man who murdered two dozen people in El Paso fed off the racist vitriol of Tucker Carson, Ben Shapiro and their ghoulish minions. Voters in the 376 counties with the worst coronavirus outbreaks voted for Trump at higher rates than anywhere else in America.

The political divisions in our country are real. But they are magnified by media companies that feed on conflict, and obsess over bogus public opinion polls to the exclusion of covering policy.

Biden and his allies should take a page from Trump’s playbook and call out media companies for these failings. And congressional leaders should work to regulate social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which make billions of dollars polluting our political discourse.

This sense of hopelessness has been a gift to the rich and powerful of this nation, those who want things to remain as they are

If you have gotten this far, there’s a good chance you are saying to yourself: Yeah, right, that all that sounds good. But it will never happen.

This sense of hopelessness has been a gift to the rich and powerful of this nation, those who want things to remain as they are, because they are making a fortune as America becomes more divided and enfeebled.

They are delighted that the media still measures the economic “health” of our nation by tracking the stock market, rather than asking how many American children will go to bed hungry, how gig workers will make rent, how many parents will go bankrupt paying a hospital bill.

More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt diagnosed the crisis with precision:

At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.

Biden and those of us who supported him won't be able to solve all these structural problems. But after four years of living in a climate of psychotic fraudulence, let’s at least be honest about the basic ways in which American democracy is broken, and how it may yet be fixed.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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