So, confession: As a shameless election junkie and statistical analysis addict, I knew Joseph Biden was going to win the election, refusing to waver or move off that rock — even as his hopes looked precariously imperiled deep into the overnight hours of Election Day into Wednesday.
I saw the map, anticipated the blue shift in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. I drank a glass of wine, closed my laptop around 3 a.m., and sent my last text to a fretted friend, reading: “He’s got this. The only question left is how soon the rest of the world finds out.”
Then, I waited. On Wednesday, as more states turned blue and Biden’s popular vote margin yawned, I began regularly updating friends on where things stood. Mostly, I wanted to let people know when to expect the last crucial dominoes to fall, and how the unique partisan split between quickly-processed Election Day votes vs slowly-processed mail ballots made for a singularly tense and peculiar count. Those affirmations calmed almost no one … gratification delayed feels like gratification denied.
I even shared a Decision Desk election call for Biden on Friday morning, captioned: “that’s ballgame,” to which I received numerous replies of, “I’ll wait until I see it on TV.” Funny how even in this era of on-demand, internet-based, straight-from-the-source insights, it still ain’t official till the networks say so. I waited. Candidly, the wait was agonizing. I slept little, ate copious amounts of junk food, and briefly picked up chain-smoking again.
On Saturday morning, as I refreshed the FiveThirtyEight live blog and read Nate Silver say, “CNN CALLS PENNSYLVANIA FOR BIDEN,” I walked my phone over to my partner, feigning a deadpan calm. “That’s 270. It’s a wrap.” Moments later, NPR broke into Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me to make their announcement. I bounded around the home — satisfied, relieved, encouraged and cheerful. It had been a while.
A Day of Celebration
We were, of course, not the only ones in a pretty delightful mood. Spontaneous celebrations erupted in most major metropolitan areas in the US and around the world. (The “Welcome Back, America” well-wishes from various world leaders was especially warm-and-fuzzy.)
It felt not like an end to an election but more like the end of a war, or the end of a World Cup win [author’s note: it was neither of those things. More on that in a moment]. The single most destructive president in American history, fanatically supported by a sizable fascist cult of (mostly) White Christian FOX News enthusiasts, was voted out by … well, almost everybody else. It felt good just to feel good.
We bought some champagne and some baguettes, invited a couple of friends over to our backyard, and listened to America’s choices for the next President and Vice President give their charges to a crowd of cars in Wilmington, Delaware.
The history-making selection of future Vice President Kamala Harris was delicious icing, strutting on stage to a Beyonce song, before giving a concise, resolute speech that was equal parts hope and homage.
Joe Biden’s mildly unvarnished, yet note-perfect, call for unity and rough outline of the road ahead felt like eating a slice of warm pizza after subsisting on a diet of moonshine and habanero-dusted crickets for the past four years.
I sat there, quietly, soaking in their every word. After all, it was the first time I’d heard a President or Vice President give a speech since Obama left office four centur — errr … years ago. And it just felt so, so nice to hear political people emptying their tank of platitudes in a way that didn’t feel empty.
The path forward out this dystopic darkness is no guarantee; it will be long, tense, and not without great sacrifice or flare-ups. However, for the first time in at least a half-decade, I at least felt as though there will be folks in the Executive Branch giving it an honest effort. That thought alone caused a profound shift in me … one I didn’t expect.
A Weekend of Reflection
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of energy and attention thinking about, writing about, fearing, loathing, predicting and attempting to escape American collapse. Much of it directed, squarely, at the man who squatted at 1600 Penn these past four years. Many of the myriad crises we find ourselves embroiled in — a global pandemic, deep-rooted racism, economic depression, anti-intellectualism, disinformation, wealth concentration, religious fanaticism, climate change, gender rights rollbacks — are far bigger than flames sparked by one man’s solipsistic, kleptocratic whims … they are endemic to the American Experiment itself.
Immersing myself in collapse — explaining it, studying it, feeling it, living through it, skewering it, fearing it — made me, well, kind of a downer, I think. I’d be kidding you if I didn’t say there were times I wished I could just cheer up, buck up and not stare directly into the abyss. This devolution into darkness pre-dated Trump’s term by at least another half-decade — I was “radicalized” (if you could call “attempting to write about and solve grave problems” a form of radicalization) by other forces I’ll explain some other time — but it exploded within me once it became clear to me that Donnie and his Mafioso Morons were headed for Washington.
I went to bed each night not knowing what he’d break next, what fresh atrocity would stain America’s legacy when I woke up, what Friday news-bomb would drop at the Times or the Post, what corruptive and corrosive thing he’d say or do at any given moment. I became dark and despondent. I’d been lectured by too many people — friends, family, readers, strangers — to be “careful of the energy I was putting into the world,” and, as recently as my last piece, I said:
“I don’t have faith in shit I have no real reason to believe in. I’d rather prepare for what we’re trending towards, rather than place blind hope in happy endings that don’t exist in real life. It’s not getting better. There’s nothing to indicate that it will.”
On Saturday and Sunday, as I walked to the store, I noticed my head held higher, my walk taller and straighter, my body felt lighter and more nimble. I felt several years younger. Even as my work will continue, I just don’t feel that drain on my soul or psyche anymore, and I openly talked about maybe staying in the US after all.
Why? Because I got finally indicators that it might very well get a little bit better. I saw it in the blue shades of Arizona and Georgia, the dance-offs in the streets of Philadelphia, the tireless work of public servants who just went on counting votes as cast, and the multiethnic, multiracial coalition who turned out in record numbers to send a strong message of, “please, God, just … not one more day of this motherfucker.”
A Lifetime of Recalibration
This talking point about how “we’ve changed nothing yet” will get beaten to death, so I won’t stand on that soapbox for longer than necessary, but … yes, we are much closer to the beginning of a better future than actually arriving at a better future. Plus, I’m still not entirely convinced a coup’s not coming.
Hope is but the first step down the road of progress. That road has potholes, hills, valleys, low-bridges, sheer drops and oncoming pickup trucks driven by drunk maniacs with too many guns. All the things that plagued us during the Trump era still do, and Trumpism isn’t going anywhere until we can find a way to reach these people and present them with alternative social contract they’ll acquiesce to. Your guess is as good as mine on how we do that.
We gotta live with each other. And, what I mean by that is, simply, productively coexist. I don’t mean we should compromise our values, or make peace with oppressors, or settle for less than our best, just to avoid poking the fascist bears. I mean we should broaden our ideals to be less divisive. I’m suggesting, in fact, that we should aim even higher, and for even more.
Remember those old cereal ads from Saturday morning cartoons where they’d say, “part of this nutritious breakfast?” (And, sure, let’s casually toss aside the fact that absolutely no nutritious breakfast contains Trix or Cocoa Puffs.) Our policies are part of a nutritious society. Staking out a land of opportunity, truth, grace, fortitude, equality, prosperity, dignity and morality shouldn’t be a hard sell — I find it hard to believe those ideals poll poorly — but it will assuredly be a hard pivot.
Take a lesson from commercial jets — they whiz by at 1,000 km/h and fly at 10 km off the surface of the earth. To go far and fast, we need to build a vehicle that makes that transit as fluid as possible, so the passengers we’re stuck on this plane with don’t start kicking and screaming again with their AR-15s and their noticeable hatred of science, decorum and masks. This is going to take a long time, it’s going to stay ugly and dark for almost as long, and there’s no guarantee we’re going to get where we want to go. That said … the odds of us making it, miraculously, aren’t zero. I can’t remember the last time I said that. I may have been in my 20s.
I asked my partner a question yesterday: When was the last time you read a major piece of good news? She couldn’t answer. And, candidly, neither could I. It had been that long.
I think, for me, the last piece of major good news I got was when Rep. Ocasio-Cortez won her primary on June 26, 2018. That was over two years ago. I worked on that campaign, though, so while I was busy sobbing happy tears alone into a gin-and-soda at a dive bar in Austin, I was some hundreds of miles from somewhere that literally anyone else who had heard of her — the national significance of that win would not be known until the next morning, or the next year, and in many ways, I don’t think we’ll finishing learning the significance of that win until decades down the line.
For me, though, the significance of this win is pretty clear: Given a choice to kill American democracy, we didn’t. It was a narrowly enthusiastic, if somewhat unspectacular, rebuke of the politics of fascism, authoritarianism, kleptocracy, racism, anti-democraticism, division, hatred, bigotry and isolationism. It was a mandate to lower the temperature, work to restore hope, clearly assess the stem-rot, repair some damage and build a brighter tomorrow. That’s, crucially, not nothing — and most nations that collapse has hard and fast as the United States has don’t often pull up the nose of the plane before it crashes.
2020’s been a tragic, horrific, impenetrable slog: a decades-long trek through a dark forest that’s been heavily mined in the areas that aren’t already burnt to the ground, littered with bear-traps, poisonous snakes, and — of course — murder hornets. We were overdue for something, anything, that felt like a way out of this exponentially decaying and seemingly eternal hell. On November 7, we got that.
We’re nowhere close to being out of those woods, but at the very least, now, someone had the good sense to show up with a flashlight. And, in brief shining moments like these, we were reminded that even the woods can still be beautiful, when we remember that we’re only lost if we stop walking.