In Praise of Not Burning Down a Democracy

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I don’t get to say this often, so I’d be remiss at the end of election week to miss the opportunity: Good job, America! You didn’t screw this up.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Election Day, plenty of activists, strategists, and pro-democracy observers were openly gnashing their teeth about what would transpire. Almost three-quarters of voters told pollsters that democracy itself was at risk, even if fewer than 1-in-10 considered the threat urgent. Rules tightening access to ballots were seen by some as intended to disenfranchise sweeping pieces of the electorate. Threats of violence against poll workers and election officials were so common that rafts of them quit. Candidates embraced former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie about 2020 and readied their own variations for 2022. It was no longer a gotcha’ question to ask candidates if they would accept their loss; many had prepared to declare victory no matter what.

Well, Tuesday came. For the most part, things seemed to go fine. When hiccups arrived—as they do every election—hyper-vigilance kicked in and remedied problems that may have been waved off in another year. Lines were manageable, waits in keeping with past cycles. Hyperbolic fears of assassinations proved overblown. Election denialists running for positions that could be pivtoal in the next election lost (though a couple remain too close to call). Even the most bombastic of characters running on the fumes of the Big Lie conceded, something unthinkable even Tuesday morning.

It turns out, this democratic experiment might actually prove more durable than expected.

Before polls had even closed, some 45 million Americans had cast ballots early—a midterm record surpassing the 39 million who voted early in 2018. An estimated 112 million Americans cast ballots in total this year, and that number may still climb as counting continues.

In other words, Americans saw the elections mattered and lent their voices to the process. That buy-in breeds legitimacy, even if your side loses. And while the United States still has some of the lowest voter participation rates in the democratic world—only one-third of the eligible voters in Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia cast ballots this year, for instance—the figures are improving. States like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Michigan outpaced their turnout from 2018 this year thanks to competitive races that could not be avoided.

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That’s not to say champions of American democracy can rest on their laurels. Far from it. The Maryland Republican who sought the attorney general gig in Annapolis has refused to concede despite a landslide loss. In Arizona, election-denialist candidates for governor and secretary of state may pull out a win. MAGA Twitter remains a place where conspiracy theories flourish. A string of bizarre statements continue to come from Trump’s distribution channels and his expected declaration of a third presidential run next week will only feed those fevered circles.

Still, the fact we are discussing the broad success of the American election and treating the irresponsible fringes as the standout exceptions says much about how this week unfolded. Rather than boarding up buildings yet again for protests, we’re hitting refresh on just a handful of race returns to see the margins of a majority. Instead of building shadow branches of government, losing candidates are posting campaign office equipment on Craigslist and talking about lessons learned ahead of potential rematches. All of this, in a weird way, should be celebrated.

U.S. democracy has had a rough few years, admittedly. The contested 2000 election was a low point in modern history—not necessarily for its outcome but for its process that took a narrow part of the results all the way to the Supreme Court to determine if counting could even continue. Wave elections in 2006, 2010, and 2018 remade Congress in major ways that forced even the winning parties to rethink governance. The 2016 contest and its Russian overtones still haunts Washington—and maybe Mar-a-Lago as well. The pandemic-tinged 2020 presidential races and its dumpster-fire codas didn’t exactly sell the world on American exceptionalism.

But this year, the electorate’s relative calm and copacetic acceptance of the results sets the stage for what may be a shockingly drama-free coast to the end of the year. Plenty of work remains to be done in Washington in the looming lame-duck session. But at least the players who will return in the coming weeks—either to prepare for their next term or to pack their offices to head home—understand the results and accept them. That speaks well for what a divided Washington might be able to accomplish in the final two years of Joe Biden’s term. And, for that, Americans should feel proud for not trying to burn down the system just because they could.

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