“The town was glad with morning light; places that had shown ugly and distrustful all night long, now wore a smile…” (Charles Dickens)
A couple of weeks ago, I stepped outside in the late afternoon—a break from a long sit at my desk—and was startled. It was still light. I checked the kitchen clock—4:23 p.m.—and smiled. Yes, the days were finally, noticeably getting longer. Not by much yet, it’s true, but in the darkness, we search frantically for that one candle. That pinpoint of light to give us the courage and strength to press on.
And, baby, has it been dark. Months of unease followed the 2020 election, capped by a sore-loser’s seditious call to sack the Capitol, a treasonous rally that ended in five deaths and a crowd chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” All this on the heels of four criminally lawless years and one pandemic that has left thousands and thousands of corpses stacked like cordwood in refrigerated trucks. Nearly half a million Americans—gone. Another 25 million out of work. Hunger and threats of eviction from sea to plastic-choked sea. But then, what could one expect from a man who, upon hearing of the far-right plot to kidnap and execute Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, said: “Maybe it was a problem. Maybe it wasn’t.”
Throughout, we-the-people huddled around the nightly news, afraid to listen, more afraid not to. Forewarned is forearmed. Suffering all the while from an exhaustion that left us oddly hyper—simultaneously alert and unable to move.
May you live in interesting times. An expression purported to be a Chinese curse disguised as a blessing. While that turns out to be an apocryphal attribution, a kindred phrase does exist in Chinese literature. A short story, “The Oil-Peddler Wins the Queen of Flowers,” published in a Suzhou collection in 1627, is peopled by characters driven off their homes by war:
Thirsty, hungry, they bore all manner of hardships;
Where would they have a home to call their own again?
They prayed to heaven, earth, and their ancestors,
Not to let them run into the Jurchens.
Truly, better be a dog in days of peace
Than a human in times of war!
Interesting times are marked by upheaval, threat, loss, while “uninteresting times” are those of tranquility: Children are born, families thrive, communities flourish. We measure our happiness, our “rightness” as a society, by how closely we mirror that state of peace. Or not.
The darkness and the light.
Democracy: A Fragile Thing
Countless talking heads have opined over the past four years, especially in the weeks leading up to and following the 2020 election, that our democracy turns out to be much more fragile than we realized:
1. The electoral college threatens to thwart the will of the people—twice in just the past 20 years, the presidential candidate with the majority popular vote has lost (Al Gore and Hillary Clinton).
2. The GOP gerrymandering of voting districts is employed to silence people of color and the young, two groups who tend to lean left. In 2012, Pennsylvania’s Democratic candidates for Congress won 51% of the vote, but thanks to gerrymandering, they only received a quarter of the seats—an outcome echoed in Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina.
3. A new slew of stringent voter ID laws have negatively impacted young, elderly, non-white, and disabled voters because obtaining the mandated ID is expensive and/or involves extensive travel. In Texas, your permit to carry a concealed weapon gets you into the voting booth; your student ID card does not.
Nor have our much-touted co-equal branches of government—hereto believed to be a bulwark against tyranny—proven unbreachable when, in fact, a tyrant helms the government. With the “right” Attorney General, we learned, the wrong president can break any law and thumb their nose at Congress. With the “right” Secretary of State, slate of electors, or “friendly” judge, a president could insist on overturning election results to achieve a false outcome. These last failed to happen in 2020, not because they weren’t attempted, but because those whose arms were twisted declined to comply. The pundits warn: We were lucky. We might not be so lucky another time.
And yet, stand we do. Battered—yes. Bleeding—yes. But not broken. In the darkest days our country has endured, with the exception of the Civil War, we remain a democratic republic. By luck? In every successful endeavor, there is always a little luck. But more, much more, was involved here.
The War on Voting
Over 159 million Americans turned out to vote in 2020, the largest number in our history by almost 20 million. It was astounding, but it wasn’t easy. In the months running up to the election, Louis DeJoy, Trump mega-donor and GOP fundraiser, was appointed Postmaster General, and promptly went about destroying the agency in his charge, trashing perfectly good mail-sorting machines, eliminating overtime, and installing something the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General called “an experimental program that changed how letter carriers sorted and delivered mail in hundreds of ZIP Codes.” The upshot? Postal delivery slowed appreciably just as voters across the nation were applying for mail-in ballots to avoid the threat of COVID in crowded polling places. And, of course, polling places would be crowded because the number of locations had been sharply curtailed, especially in urban areas where the GOP knew large numbers of Democrats would be casting their ballots.
What to do? Don’t post your ballot, advised fair-election orgs across the country. Use one of your local ballot drop-boxes. Drop boxes whose locations and number then dwindled or were removed outright in red states across the country. Missouri’s GOP Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft promptly refused to distribute the 80 drop boxes he’d purchased, noting “state law requires those ballots be returned by mail.” Ohio’s GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose said he would allow one drop box per each of the state’s 88 counties. The Trump campaign sued to prevent the use of drop boxes, period, in Pennsylvania. And Florida instituted a valid ID requirement for anyone using a ballot drop box, but only in Miami-Dade County, the seventh most populous county in the country, where more than a quarter of voters are non-white.
Undaunted, people ordered their ballots. They drove or walked the distance to whatever drop box was available. If they couldn’t do that, they stood in blocks-long lines for early voting. All the stops were pulled out to make voting difficult to impossible, yet vote we did, in numbers never before achieved. And Joe Biden won. With 81,283,098 votes and an electoral college tally of 306. Cries of jubilant relief rang throughout the land when he was declared the winner on Saturday, November 7, after possibly the longest four days in my lifetime.
And then the kaka hit the fan.
Saving Democracy One Postcard and $5 at a Time
In the wake of Biden’s victory, Rudy Giuliani raced from courthouse to courthouse across the country, hair dye streaming down his face, filing frivolous lawsuits filled with lies for his sore-loser boss. In Michigan, where Biden won by 150,000 votes, certification was held up for several days while two Republican election officials followed the Trump campaign’s order not to certify the vote in Wayne County, home to Detroit, birthplace of Motown and a city boasting a Black population above 75%.
Detroit voters literally rose up within minutes of that refusal to certify. Three Black women—all residents of Detroit, all voters in the 2020 election—together with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, filed suit. “Repeating false claims of voter fraud, which have been thoroughly debunked, Defendants are pressuring state and local officials in Michigan not to count votes from Wayne County, Michigan (where Detroit is the county seat), and thereby disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters,” the lawsuit, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, stated.
In state after state, voter fraud was alleged and mail-in ballots repeatedly scrutinized. Painstaking counts and recounts followed. No fraud was found. Judges everywhere threw out Trump’s lawsuits. Meritless, they said. A waste of time. Biden’s victory is possibly the best-documented win in our history. And the hardest fought. But the struggle didn’t end there.
The race for Georgia’s two Senate seats, then held by two Republicans—one elected and one appointed to fill a vacancy—resulted in no candidate having the required 50%. A January 5th run-off was scheduled. To make matters edgier, both seats were a must-win for the Democrats if they were to dethrone McConnell and have a prayer at passing any of Biden’s agenda, including his Cabinet appointments. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. GOP groups dropped almost a quarter billion dollars on the two seats, but Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff had a formidable, not-so-secret weapon of their own: former gubernatorial candidate and organizer par excellence, Stacey Abrams, and her voting rights org Fair Fight. Together with dozens of similar-minded groups across the country, they corralled hundreds of thousands of Americans to write letters, make phone calls, text, and send postcards to Georgia voters. While dark money poured into GOP coffers, these orgs raised funds the grassroots way—$5 here, $10 there—registered new voters, and helped people obtain absentee ballots. Their unrelenting efforts paid off. In the early hours of January 6, it was announced that both Warnock and Ossoff had won.
And then Trump made his call to sedition and the Capitol was besieged.
Speaking Truth to Tyranny
That was what everyone saw, the attempt to steal the election by force, but more—much more—was going on behind the scenes. Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, appointed on December 24, 2020 by Trump when Billy Barr stepped down, was already facing possibly the shortest tenure ever. But, it turns out, his time as AG might have been much shorter. During his final weeks in office, Trump wanted Rosen to press his BS claims of election fraud, to push the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s win. When Rosen refused, Trump turned to another Jeffrey in the Justice Department—Jeffrey Clark, a lawyer—who was only too happy to help.
Clark immediately began setting a trap for Rosen. He asked that letters be sent to Georgia officials to inform them the department was investigating the state for voter fraud, so it would be wise to overturn Biden’s win now. Rosen refused. There was no evidence of fraud. Clark then met with Trump and informed Rosen that he, Clark, would replace him before the January 6 certification of the votes in Congress. Rosen refused to step down. The president would have to fire him if he wanted him gone, which is likely what would have happened—Trump had certainly fired many others when much less was at stake. Only it didn’t happen. Because the entire leadership at the Justice Department threatened to resign if Rosen were dumped over these egregious lies. Trump, afraid the story amplified in the press would tank his unfounded claims of election fraud, quickly backed down.
At every turn in this long national nightmare, a seemingly endless darkness threatened to eclipse and defeat our democracy, but we-the-people organized, spoke out, volunteered our time and donated our money. Most important, we did whatever it took to exercise our right to stand up and be counted—we voted. And even in the long lines of the shrinking number of polling stations, we were never alone because others of us organized water and pizza to sustain us, civil rights lawyers were on the ground to advise and protect us. And we-the-people prevailed.
A New Dawn Breaks
As I’ve been writing this post the past several weeks, the struggle toward the light continues. The tiny gains made daily are often obscured by gray winter clouds. Yet, sunset-and-sunrise.com assures me we’ve gained 23 minutes of daylight in that time.
And despite the insurrection at the Capitol, the gun-toting QAnon members of Congress who defended it, and McConnell’s fight to stymie the Democrats’ thin majority in the Senate—despite all that, Joe Biden was sworn in as our 46th president, and delivered his inaugural address before that very Capitol building. His opening lines are worth repeating here:
This is America’s day.
This is democracy’s day.
A day of history and hope.
Of renewal and resolve.
Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge.
Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy.
The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.
We have learned again that democracy is precious.
Democracy is fragile.
And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.
The light has not been shuttered or snuffed out. It continues to grow hourly, shining new hope into yesterday’s dark places. Biden has lifted the xenophobic Muslim ban, rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization. He has revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and ordered a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Transgender people no longer face a ban on joining the military. The President’s “Build Back Better” plan promises a clean-energy revolution, the building of which will create good-paying union jobs in America, funded by reversing the excesses of the Trump tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. It’s a staggeringly beautiful document, full of vision and hope. You can read it here.
And at last, finally, we are formulating a real plan to tackle COVID, with federal guidance and assistance for the production and distribution of vaccines to all Americans who want them. States are no longer left on their own to figure things out, then find the financing.
The earth will continue to turn through periods of darkness, seasons of light. Even the longest, happiest day of summer has a night. A Texas judge has temporarily blocked Biden’s deportation freeze after Texas AG Ken Paxton argued that it violated an agreement Texas brokered with Trump days before Biden took office—an agreement that’s sure to be challenged. Reeling from their 2020 loss, Republican-controlled legislatures in a slew of states are threatening new voting restrictions. These, too, will be answered, so brazenly totalitarian is the authority they seek.
We are still a deeply divided nation, part of a deeply divided world, but as long as enough of us continue to stand up for what is just, what is right, what is humane, we will never find ourselves in total darkness.
You see, we are the light.