This Election is a Referendum on The Great American Experiment

The daily thunder had just begun to echo, and the clouds were not yet within sight in the middle of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. As I reached over to close the window I commented to a friend, “there aren’t sunsets here… not like in America.” To my surprise, it wasn’t Mike who answered, but a man I’d never seen before — Farce, I would soon learn. “We have sunsets here.” 

I explained I didn’t mean it in that way; I missed the way sunsets looked back home, from the comfort of the Arb in Oberlin. By the end of our conversation, something he uttered wouldn’t get out of my head: “The hate that divides your country, I know it well…” — he was a survivor of the Rwandan genocide 26 years prior — “… and I tell you, it is powerful. The difference is, we didn’t all have guns.” He predicted the United States, as a single nation, wouldn’t exist 20 years from now. He said it was like watching the bully’s house burn down and, while knowing that a fire is always bad, reveling in the comeuppance.

These days, I wake up and check the news, most often with anticipatory dread. Each move Trump and the Republicans make aligns me closer to a sentiment I’ve heard over and over from friends, professors, and others: The great American experiment is in crisis. 

Tuesday’s election is a referendum on this point. It’s likely a candidate will win by a relatively small margin — if Biden wins, probably through mail-in votes. Trump has been aware of this for months and in preparation has waged a concerted war on the perceived legitimacy of our electoral institutions. He dismissed mail-in voting as plagued with “big problems and discrepancies,” dismantled USPS’s ability to process ballots, and called into question future results. He refused to commit to conceding, both through his actions and words. He’s urged his supporters to vote in-person on Election Day, likely leading to the appearance of a Trump victory on Nov. 3. Hawkfish, a Bloomberg research group, predicts the “mirage” of a Trump landslide win the night of, with a Biden victory appearing as many as four days after. Trump has set himself up to dismiss a marginal Biden victory as fraud and to actively challenge the validity of hundreds of thousands of ballots. In other words, he has set himself up to launch something of a soft coup.

I will not pretend to have a measure of how likely such a possibility is, but when there’s smoke in the next room you don’t ignore it. If results are challenged, Trump will certainly attempt to take the argument to the Supreme Court, where he now has a six–three majority waiting to secure his re-election. Maybe the justices will attempt to keep institutional credibility, but with Chief Justice Roberts no longer providing a swing vote, it’s no guarantee.

Perhaps more worrisome than Trump’s actions is the effect such rhetoric will have on his core base. Hard-right militias, including the “Proud Boys,” have been primed to see a Trump loss as an assault on their freedom. Such domestic terrorists have presented the most pressing threat to our country’s peace and safety for years now, and it’s not hard to imagine a call to action from Trump could lead to outbursts of violence. As an Oberlin student, it has crossed my mind more than once that our school is viewed as the archetype of the ideological left. If violence occurs, it is not unlikely that we would see threats, at the least. I don’t mean to stoke fears, but believe this concern must be aired, discussed, and prepared for.

So what can we do about all this? Vote. Get your friends to vote. It will be impossible for any of these mildly dystopian possibilities to occur if Americans have laid down an edict so great, electing Biden with such a sweeping margin, Trump cannot dispute it. Even if this happens, however, it is not the end of our work. H.R.4, an election rights act that passed in the House last year, is a start (and we must pressure the new Congress to make it law), but it doesn’t address the core societal issue. The fact that this article needs to be written at all is evidence something is deeply wrong with our democracy.

Our economy, and its social and political ramifications, is torn between two coexisting competing ethical principles: the democratic belief that wealth should be distributed equitably, and the market-driven capitalist belief that wealth-generation is a good unto itself. In other words, the tension created by this duality is forcing us into a choice: allow our democratic institutions to govern the private sectors of our economy in service of equality, or remove labor’s power over the economy — a power manifested through democratic institutions like voting — in order to maximize profit, i.e. authoritarianism.

Enter Trump. His rise coincides with a loss of faith in our institutions ongoing for years. The spectre of the Great Recession remains with our people — 54 percent of the country has seen no wage growth since. Combined with rising austerity measures, the perception of a government beholden to foreign interests, and exploding racial tensions, authoritarian populism has been given fertile ground. Voting is our first line of defense. If we can kick him out of office, we’ve bought ourselves four years to begin reform. 

Farce was right. A few days after our conversation, I walked to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of Kigali, and the crimson sun painted the hilltops like golden waves. I would like to think he was mistaken about one thing, though — 20 years from now, the United States will still be here. But if we hope to prove him wrong, we must find a sustainable solution to make our institutions work, perhaps for the first time, in the name of true liberty, and which will realize with care a dream long resting at the edges of the American promise.