View from
The Center

America: Strained But Strong

(AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

“Hopefully, the reality of neither party being dominant will translate into a shared recognition that virtues like tolerance must be rediscovered and resuscitated in our political life.”

What a beautiful country we have here. I do not say this ironically. Whatever one’s feelings are regarding former Vice President Joe Biden’s probable presidential victory or the Republican Party’s likely retainment of their Senate majority, it is hard not to sit in awe today of the immense power of American democracy. We are beginning to emerge from a uniquely strenuous campaign season and national election not only intact but perhaps poised to chart a path forward out of our morass of political polarization and contempt. 

Granted, some are offering far more pessimistic takes on the election’s outcome. One might find my optimism misplaced. Allow me to explain. 

For starters, Americans voted in record numbers this year, clearing 150 million votes for president. That is no small feat, especially in light of the fact that these votes were cast in person and by mail in the face of a pandemic. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has disrupted our everyday lives: Lives have been cut short, jobs have been lost, schools have been closed, and nerves have been strained. And yet, American voters still showed up. In record numbers. Well done. 

But it was not just the pandemic that placed a strain on American democracy this election season. The sitting president himself needlessly sowed doubt as to the legitimacy of the electoral process before and after ballots had been cast. He even prematurely declared himself the winner of the election. This was rather unfortunate, and I suspect that we will look back on this aspect of the 2020 election with particular disfavor, no matter which presidential candidate ultimately comes out on top. 

President Donald Trump’s unnecessary and irresponsible rhetoric did not break American democracy. Far from it. Although there were plenty of hiccups, state and county election officials carried out the election with efficiency and transparency. The political space—government, media, politicians—is often woefully lacking in competence, but the public servants who conduct our elections deserve our praise and gratitude. While we heap well-deserved scorn on most all pollsters, I hope we bestow a commensurate amount of praise upon the public servants who made this election possible—and are continuing to do so. Thank you. 

It still may, but for now, I believe we have staved off disaster for quite some time. Indeed, we might be inching towards a period of growth, stability, and a more workable, healthy politics.

Beyond the mechanics of the election process itself, the 2020 election indicates that American democracy might be shifting onto more stable footing. I have been worrying the past few years about our country, particularly about the propensity of its sickly, dysfunctional politics to translate into real social instability. In short, I worried that the rhetorical warfare we have seen play out in our halls of government and on social media would, over time, devolve into actual violence or some form of national disintegration. The whitening of the Republican Party mixed with the radicalization of the political left, I thought, portended disaster. It still may, but for now, I believe we have staved off disaster for quite some time. Indeed, we might be inching towards a period of growth, stability, and a more workable, healthy politics. 

For example, as the United States grows increasingly multiracial and its white racial majority dissipates, I think it is fair to say that the Republican Party morphing into the partisan voice of white racial resentment would have been less than optimal. But that is not necessarily what is happening. Exit polls indicate that President Trump won roughly 26% of nonwhite voters. That is by far the largest Republican win with nonwhite voters since Richard Nixon won 32% of nonwhite voters in 1960. A mix of African Americans (particularly black men) and Latinos seem to have backed President Trump in record numbers. 

While far from a given, President Trump’s expansion of the GOP’s reach into minority communities has opened the door to what up-and-coming stars like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley have been envisioning: a multiracial, socially conservative, working class Republican Party. This would be a dynamic, interesting party—not a party averse to persuasion, democratic norms, and the suffusion of the franchise. Thus, the Republican Party has a chance to build on these somewhat unexpected gains it has made with nonwhite voters. I hope it does; in light of American history, racially depolarizing the two parties would unquestionably be a good thing for the country.

While 2020 may have pointed out a way forward for the GOP, it certainly has left the Democratic Party with some tough questions. Why were so many Latinos lost in places like Miami-Dade County, FL, and Starr County, TX, for example? That said, the party once again did quite well in the suburbs, which is what helped push Vice President Biden over the top in states like Wisconsin and Michigan (and potentially Pennsylvania). The Democratic Party is far from vanquished. After all, they will control the House and, barring any surprises, the White House as well.

In sum, the Republican Party may be trending in a welcome direction for the health of the nation, while neither party is manifestly ascendant by any means. Hopefully, the reality of neither party being dominant will translate into a shared recognition that virtues like tolerance must be rediscovered and resuscitated in our political life. Both parties are very much here to stay. And if they veer away from their worst tendencies and compete with one another to form winning, broad-based coalitions, we just might be entering a particularly fruitful period in American politics. The future is bright.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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Glass half full…. we forever need optimism! Well done!