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The End of the Beginning
No matter what happens, if we ever want a better future, we have to keep fighting.
Well, it’s almost over.
How you’ll be feeling tomorrow morning depends on what side of an increasingly polarized political divide you find yourself and the coin flip outcome of a handful of swing states that tip the scales—or maybe don’t, with millions of mail-in ballots uncounted—toward destruction or salvation.
Maybe you’ll wake up with heightened anxiety—scrambling against the heaviness of what feels like gravity pulling you off a ledge into chaos. Or maybe you'll wake up calm with the grounding of a dull gray dawn, uncertain but hopeful. Or maybe, like so many days before, you'll feel nothing at all.
For many, election night four years ago felt like the country slammed the proverbial red button, but in reality, it’s been more of a slow-motion demolition—a plunge into authoritarianism punctuated by human rights abuses, scandals, and incompetence.
Some of our worst fears haven’t come to fruition since President Donald Trump was elected; we haven’t, for example, kicked off a nuclear war via a tweet or pissing contest to impress Trump’s base. But many of our worst nightmares have—the full-throated attack on undocumented people by Trump’s immigration cops, the use of uprisings against white supremacy as a pretext for crushing free speech, the cover and encouragement given to racists and fascists, the rank corruption, and so much more.
Then there was COVID-19, a terror few people who weren’t public health experts could have predicted. Today, more than 231,000 people are dead as Trump continues to pressure states to reopen.
No matter how the votes shake out, it’s equally hard to predict what’s next for all of us. But what’s certain is that in the coming days and weeks, the polarization which has defined the last four years isn’t going away.
It’s become almost cliché to point out that Trump was the result of long-simmering tensions in American political life, but since his inauguration, the president has only further exploited and exacerbated those tensions. Last month, Gallup found that the gap between Democrats and Republicans in Trump's approval rating was the largest it’s ever been, 92 points, with 95 percent of Republicans approving of the job the president is doing as opposed to just 3 percent of Democrats.
This isn’t just a problem in the abstract; friendships and families have been destroyed over the last five years, and much of it is due to the fact that Trump and his Congressional enablers—not to mention state-level politicians—have helped swing the GOP from a coalition of business interests and religious conservatives fully into an outwardly fascist movement.
Last week’s Supreme Court decision to not expedite a GOP request to shorten North Carolina’s mail-in ballot counting window sent Trump into a rage, as the president claimed that the election “should END on November 3, not weeks later!” despite the fact that it has never ended on November 3. In Minnesota, a federal appeals court struck down guidance from elections officials and said ballots have to be received by 8 p.m. on election night rather than postmarked, meaning that potentially thousands of ballots that voters were told were valid will be thrown out.
Restricting voting as much as possible during a pandemic was Trump and state GOP officials’ final play, and if it works, expect protests similar in size or greater than what we saw in the wake of Trump’s election and inauguration—or a level of federal repression that meets or far exceeds what we saw in cities like D.C. and Portland this summer. It’s likely Trump would declare victory on a razor-thin margin before counts are finalized if he has any chance at all of winning.
A Biden victory, even if seemingly undisputable, could lead to violent protests. Last month, Trump’s Homeland Security secretary admitted that he was “particularly concerned” about white supremacist violence. The founder of the far-right Oathkeepers militia recently said in an Infowars interview that his group would be at polling places on Election Day to “protect” Trump voters.
The third scenario, possibly the worst, is a drawn-out conflict over who actually won, harkening back to the 2000 Bush-Gore recount, with an even more conservative Supreme Court. The Trump campaign, facing the reality that they’d need an unprecedented comeback to win, has been full-throttle for months trying to muddy the election results as much as possible.
It’s not a sure thing that absentee ballots which arrive after November 3 in states including North Carolina and Pennsylvania will actually be counted; the Supreme Court is currently allowing them to move forward, but the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the court gives the conservative majority another vote to “revisit” it. If that happens, who knows?
There’s a lot we don’t know, but one thing is clear: this dust won’t settle. No matter what happens, if we ever want a better future—labor and economic rights and healthcare for everyone, a cleaner environment, a government that actually works for people—we’re going to have to continue to organize and agitate for it because no one with an iota of political power in the United States, unfortunately, is just going to willingly give it to us.
The threat we’re up against has only become clearer as Trump has spent more time in office. The administration has rolled back even the most modest of regulations on the environment even as extreme weather and wildfires have become more and more frequent. Corporate taxes have been slashed to almost nothing, while the GOP continues its relentless attack on the patchwork, inadequate healthcare system that the Affordable Care Act made only slightly made better.
And the administration, in concert with the Senate GOP, has drastically shifted both the Supreme Court and the lower courts to the right for the next generation. If nothing is done to reform them, any progress this country has achieved in the past century is on the table, as is future progress—the legal right to an abortion, voting rights, and workplace anti-discrimination efforts, just to name a few. Four more years of Trump would mean even more judges on the court to enact a right-wing agenda while being insulated from political consequences.
Joe Biden, the favorite to win heading into the election, isn’t our white knight. Biden’s the product of the decades of neoliberalism that partially contributed to Trump’s first victory. He’s also one of the main architects of the Democratic Party’s turn away from New Deal politics and a race toward the center. While the Biden of his first two presidential runs in 1988 and 2008 would hardly recognize some of the progressive policies of today’s campaign, the former vice president explicitly ran in 2020 against expansions of the welfare state like Medicare for All and the version of the Green New Deal as introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Most people can’t afford to wait for another set of patchwork reforms to the healthcare system, and we don’t have the time to take a moderate approach to combating climate change—which includes fracking.
We need to keep fighting for those things.
It remains to be seen whether or not the activist energy that has exploded among liberals and the Democratic Party over the last four years can continue if a Democrat is back in the White House. The Trump administration separated families, but the Obama administration also put children in cages, and Biden’s former running mate was labeled the “deporter-in-chief” by activists during his presidency.
Biden recently vowed to reunite more than 500 families with the children they’ve been separated from, and has said he’ll reinstate the DACA program, which provides a pathway to stay in the country for undocumented people who came to the U.S. at a young age. But if his administration commits the same sort of atrocities against would-be immigrants that the Obama administration did, will there be the same energy we saw with family separation? What about protests against police brutality?
There are a couple of reasons for cautious optimism. The first is that, unlike Obama, a lot of Biden voters aren’t blindly buying into his branding this time. Biden has never been a particularly inspiring figure, which means his policies will come under more scrutiny than Obama’s.
The second reason is that the Trump era has seen the birth of an effective roadmap for protesting and pushing back against the increasingly authoritarian nature of the executive branch. When family separation was revealed, the public rallied back against the White House and successfully forced Trump to sign an executive order ending the policy (though the administration found other, less attention-grabbing ways of destroying families). Activists also successfully rallied to kill the GOP’s legislative attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act. And all across the country this year, racial justice activists saw some of their most successful attempts yet at forcing their cities to confront racism and brutality in policing.
One aspect of the last four years that has been particularly encouraging has been the growth of the left and the willingness to challenge both Democrats and Republicans on their decisions which brought us to this nightmare realm. Democratic mayors, prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, and even members of Congress all over the country have been toppled by a new generation of officials who have promised to fundamentally change the system, if not create a new one altogether.
And finally, the country is changing. It’s becoming more diverse, and the Sun Belt is the biggest representation of that, with states like North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona shifting leftward. This doesn’t mean “demographics are destiny,” but it does mean that there are new opportunities to grow the labor and social justice movements that could finally put an end to the Republican domination of the states we’ve seen over the past decade or longer.
Maybe you’re feeling hopeless right now. Maybe, for the first time in four years, there’s a glimmer of sunshine poking through the clouds. Or maybe you feel like none of this really matters. That’s ok, too.
As bleak as things are, we’ve proven that we can change them—not because of the political forces that run this country, but in spite of them. And this is a long-term fight, one that’s not going to end with any election.
The fight is not over.
This piece was published in partnership with INDY Week.