The cover of the December New Republic features a big picture of Joe Biden with the one-word caption Phew!
We did indeed dodge a bullet on November 3. Trump’s re-election would have been a disaster for American democracy. It would have initiated changes in our system of governance in an authoritarian direction that could take decades to reverse. Yes, it could have happened here.
But inside the same issue of The New Republic, one commentator, John Patrick Leary, takes a different tack from the expression of relief on the front cover. In his view, all this breathless talk about saving American democracy amounts to a blinkered celebration of a system that is badly broken:
What would we be saving—the obscene ad spending, gerrymandered legislatures, broken voting machines, byzantine registration laws, felon disenfranchisement, and all the legal means by which states can suppress the Black vote? The continued existence of the Senate, an instrument of minority party rule? Or the coterie of unelected legislators-for-life better known as the Supreme Court? The task is not to save “our democracy”—we need to build it first.”
I have some sympathy with Leary’s perspective, but only up to a point. Of course, he’s right that our democratic system is very badly flawed. Any celebration of its preservation should go along with a clear-eyed understanding of the need to make it better. But Leary’s insistence on always putting “our democracy” in scare quotes suggests a failure to appreciate the very real possibility that it could get a lot worse—it almost did, and it still might. The fact is, over 70 million Americans voted for a lawless racist demagogue with authoritarian aspirations, and for the party that enables him. The system held, but just barely. The Trumpists’ assault on our democracy will continue, and we need to continue to defend it–without scare quotes.