Finally, I said no to Donald Trump, clearly and consequentially.
I have voiced my judgment over the past four years, and I have facilitated and organized others’ opinions, reports and analyses of Trumpism and global authoritarian trends here at the Democracy Seminar. Yet, a week ago, I exercised the real power of my vote. It was gratifying.
And I didn’t only vote against Trump. I voted for a progressive democratic future.
Biden has enabled the center and the left to act in concert against Trump, but also has worked with his progressive rivals to formulate common programs on the environment, healthcare, workers’ rights and social justice that would move in the direction of urgent change.
I went further last week, for I also voted for Mondaire Jones, today my congressman elect, one of the two first openly gay black members of the House of Representatives, and among the progressives who will keep Biden and House centrists honest.
While I voted for Joe because I wanted to unite democrats of the left, right and center, including the Squad, the Democratic National Committee and The Lincoln Project, I voted for Mondaire because I wanted to radically address the pressing problems of our times. I didn’t vote for the lesser of two evils. I voted my convictions.
That was a week ago.
On the night of Election Day, I was more horrified than gratified. Along with many others, including my Democracy Seminar colleague, Jeff Isaac, I had hoped for a clear and unambiguous repudiation of Donald Trump and Trumpism, along with a commitment for radical change. But as the votes were coming in, our hopes were being frustrated, if not quashed.
I summarized my dismay in a simple Facebook post, which surprisingly attracted a great deal of attention and stimulated an extended discussion: “How could it be this close?” I posed the question when it was still uncertain who would win. Now, it has become clear that Biden has won, with a national popular majority, winning some razor thin close state contests, losing others, adding up to an electoral college victory. But the question remains.
In the middle of a pandemic, nearly a majority of Americans voted for an incompetent Covid-19 denier. In a country with long and deep democratic traditions and institutions, nearly a majority of Americans voted for an authoritarian and self-declared dear friend of dictators from around the world. In a country with its roots in white supremacy and racism, but also with a long tradition of anti-racism that is now energized with new creativity and ever broader public appeal and support, nearly a majority of Americans chose racism over anti-racism, voting for the white-supremacist in chief, who uses his twitter bullhorn to proclaim his uncoded racist views. So many Americans chose lies over truth, vulgarity over civility, hatred over love, and, indeed, death over life, given climate change.
The choices are perplexing and also potentially enervating. I don’t blame the media for the choices Americans made. It’s not because of Russian bots. Neo-liberalism does not explain it, nor does the simple invocation of globalization provide an explanation. These are all factors to be sure. But ultimately people are responsible. My fellow Americans as individuals and in groups are responsible for what they have done. When the choice was so clear, with the results so divided, how can we possibly develop a capacity to act together and address the enormous problems of our times? Despair, hopelessness and resignation are tempting.
Avoiding these temptations takes work. The Democracy Seminar’s activities have provided some hope, helping to understand the bad choices and illuminating how we should respond to the consequences of those choices.
For example, we must confront the political battlefield as it is, including the phenomenon of digital authoritarianism, as Funda Basaran does in her analysis of Turkey. We must fight against despair by being open to careful comparative and historical comparisons, as Marci Shore demonstrates when comparing what happened on the European killing fields of the nineteen thirties and forties and what is now happening on the southern border of the United States. We must think about how we name things and the power of metaphor, as Robert Ivie demonstrates as he reflects upon the question of “restoring justice” v. “packing the court.” And we must consider the emotions and emotional attachments and appeals in our political life, as Leo Casey and I have noted in the course of the political campaign.
Well before election day, we planned two webinars to discuss the results of this long brutal election campaign. We did so hoping that the United States might decisively turn the global tide of authoritarianism. One meeting would be among observers from the outside looking in, considering the global implications of the American results. That webinar is scheduled for November 18th, and announcements will be out soon. The other webinar, convened on November 5th, brought together a group of American political scientists offering their deliberate considerations on the news of the day.
Cristina Beltrán of New York University, Nadia E. Brown of Purdue University, Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute and Sanford F. Schram of City University of New York, along with organizer and moderator Jeffrey C. Isaac of Indiana University, offered disciplined insights: reporting on some under-acknowledged results: the election of black Republican women, the increased sexual diversity of elected officials (I noted to myself that this includes Mondaire Jones), the significance of the high level of participation, both among Democrats and Republicans, the mobilization associated with 2018 matched by the mobilization of racists in 2020, the political consequence of the movement for black lives, matched by the mobilization of white supremacists. Intersectional ironies of the Latinx and people of color were explored. And the panelists considered how the degree of class identity is strongly correlated with Trump and Sanders support, along with the importance of multicultural conservatism, whiteness as a political culture, the significance of both party politics and politics beyond parties, and the problem of dealing with a major party that has explicitly “given up on majority rule.” Predictions were made by some, that Biden would handily win in Pennsylvania and that the Democrats would be highly competitive in the Georgia Senate run-off elections in January thanks to the heroic work of Stacy Abrams. The discussion was comprehensive, clear and often subtle. Please do see for yourself here.
My role in this webinar was to field questions from the audience. These questions, together with the panelists’ answers and their discussion, remind me of the gratifying feeling I had when I voted last week. The election results were disappointing, and it is still not certain that Trump and the Trumpists won’t work to undermine the majority’s will, (a great concern of Isaac in his essay “We Will Be Lucky If Biden Actually Becomes President Elect.”, briefly discussed as he opened the webinar). The webinar reminded me that although almost one half of the American electorate chose a weird form of authoritarianism over democracy, more than half chose democracy. The webinar illuminated how that half can be expanded. And it made clear that our work at the Democracy Seminar is as important as it has ever been.
I oscillate in my response to this election, which is so different from any in my life. I felt empowered when I voted last week, discouraged when it became clear on Election Day that there wouldn’t be the unambiguous repudiation of Trump and Trumpism that American democracy so sorely needs. After taking part in our webinar and composing this post, I feel more informed and hopeful, ready to continue working on the Democracy Seminar considering how the election results can contribute to the repudiation.
And I realize that the execution of political justice is an immediate challenge ahead, as Donald Trump faces defeat with all the grace and dignity that one would expect. He is asserting victory when the facts in the polling stations reported by the secretaries of state reveal his lies. He denounces mail-in voting and imagined unspecified mass fraud. Everything he has said and tweeted since Election Day seems to purposively undermine democracy in America. With this in mind, I am becoming convinced that prosecuting him for his personal crimes and public sedition should be seriously considered. I have long opposed anything that resembles revolutionary justice and haven’t found appealing calls to “lock him up.” I supported with enthusiasm the motto of political “amnesty without amnesia,” as Adam Michnik put it after the great transformation in Poland after 1989. This is a key component of my commitment to “Gray is Beautiful.” Yet, it is becoming clear to me that the legal repudiation of Trump may be the best way for Americans to assure that “it won’t happen here,” again. A topic for a future webinar.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar.