The meaning of this election will depend not on the president-elect but on what every one of us does today and tomorrow and the next day and the day after. The true contest begins only now.
Over the past 15 months, the matters at stake have been written about extensively on these pages. Can we preserve a people united by a shared commitment to a democratic republic, if by nothing else? Can we secure the constitutional rights that make our commitment to a democratic republic real? Can we put racial domination behind us; abandon the denigration of women, sexual minorities, immigrants, the disabled and the religiously faithful; and also free our economy from the inequality traps set for us by globalization?
With high hope for the future, to paraphrase Lincoln, I nonetheless venture no prediction.
The prayers of one side to put 11 million undocumented citizens on the path to citizenship and of the other side to deport them all cannot both be answered. The hopes of one side for an end to discrimination against transgender people and of the other side to be free of even having to think about transgender experiences cannot both be satisfied. Nor is it likely that, in the end, the prayers and hopes of either side will be answered fully. To believe in democracy is to accept the disappointment of the imperfect outcome. What good, then, is democracy?
By virtue of participating in these contests, we are free. Only by participating in these contests can we be free. We are disappointed today but can try again for tomorrow. To be a democratic citizen requires endurance, resilience and tenacity.
The project of self-government endures just as long as we are willing to accept our losses in electoral contests. If we cease to accept our losses, democracy is at an end. It must break up into ever smaller units, until it is no more. What makes us a united people is nothing more and nothing less than our willingness to accept political defeats. That’s it — the strange alchemy that makes democracy.
But there’s a vital second part to this question: What makes it possible to accept loss in the political arena? Only unshakable confidence that impartial judicial institutions will secure our constitutional rights. These rights limit the depth of the defeat we can suffer. To preserve ourselves as a people willing to concede elections, we need confidence in our mutual commitments to one another’s constitutional rights.
And if we are to have this confidence, we need judicial institutions that act with disinterestedness and impartiality. Compared with the antics of the FBI, the findings against Rolling Stone for defamation and against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” deputies bring sweet relief. Somewhere, out there, outside of Washington, the justice system still operates in plain and sensible ways, securing liberty and dispensing justice to all. This election has made clear that we have work to do to restore the value of disinterestedness in the nation’s capital and everywhere. If we lose impartiality, we lose our democracy.
Finally, as we speed toward being a society in which no ethnic group is in the majority, there is the question of whether we can refashion our social and economic relations to support liberty and justice for all. In this election, rural Americans and Americans without college degrees sought release from the trap of diminished opportunities. Sadly, their fine aspirations have gotten wretchedly mixed up with the desires of the David Dukes among us, and their amplifiers, including the president-elect. The David Dukes of our country find their solutions to our problems in the pursuit of racial purity and restored domination. In this election, they have gained far too much influence.
Each and every one of us can help unmix that mess by bringing our creativity to the question of how to reorganize educational and economic opportunities so that they are spread fairly throughout the population. Add to the list the task of engaging anew in a fight for hearts and minds, a quest to inspire a commitment to equality. Finally, let us begin, each and every one of us, to learn again how to listen. We are hearing important things from both sides that, in each case, the other side doesn’t know how to hear.
Surely, we all seek a just and lasting peace among ourselves. If so, three things are necessary: securing our peoplehood; securing our rights; and securing social equality and economic fairness. In a time where we seem to have no common projects, we should shift our collective focus to the one thing we do share: our constitutional union. We need to focus on restoring the health and functionality of our political institutions.
With charity toward all, and malice toward none, I, for one, concede today. With charity toward all, and malice toward none, with firmness in the right as my own God helps me to work to discern the right, I, and others, too, I’m sure, commit to using pen and voice, argument and exhortation, tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, at every phase of the great contest that faces us now. It is a worthy cause, an effort to rebuild our democratic republic and to forge a connected society with liberty and justice for all. What will become of us depends on each of us.
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