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[Updated] Is the American Experiment Over?

3 min read

Back in 1787, as the Constitutional Convention ended, a woman came up to Ben Franklin and asked him what we got. He replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” After this election, it looks like we can’t.

It doesn’t matter whether Biden wins (as is looking more likely, Trump’s threats to sue notwithstanding). It doesn’t matter if we get the Senate (looking less likely, though still possible). What matters is that Trump and the Republicans, who ran a profoundly anti-democratic campaign, lied repeatedly, and openly cheated everywhere they could, were not severely punished for it.

What matters is that the lies worked.

A functioning democracy (Franklin’s republic) depends on an educated citizenry who understand reality and work within it. What we saw last night is that close to half of the votes were cast by people who denied reality. The reality of the pandemic and Trump’s totally incompetent handling of it. The reality of climate change. The reality of GOP corruption and authoritarianism.

Too many people believed the lies. Too many people voted for what they were deliberately misled into believing was their own self-interest. Too many people wanted an authoritarian ruler who would bring back their fantasy world where N—— knew their place, where Jews faced quotas, where women were obedient to the men in their life, where gays and lesbians hid for shame, where the Bible was the moral and legal rule.

This was an election where a determined minority tried and largely succeeded in imposing its will on a majority that sees the world as it really is. It was an election where fantasy beat out reality, where greed defeated compassion, where patriotism was defined by religion and skin color, and by loyalty to a man, not to an idea.

Reactionary forces from Republicans to the oil interests to fundamentalists have been working hard for the last half-century to kill public education in this country. Education teaches people how to think rationally, how to examine issues critically, how to appreciate facts and to apply reason, how to debate properly, how to respect diversity of opinion, of culture, of belief. In short, how to deal with reality. Education is the means by which the less fortunate in life can achieve equal standing in the world. It is the guarantor of a true democratic republic.

A true democratic republic depends on rational debate, on acknowledging facts, on respecting other points of view, on following conventions that have the majesty though not the force of law, on sharing power and on the peaceful transfer of power. All of that was on the ballot last night, and lost. Regardless of the outcome in the next few days, the fact that it was even close means that far too many citizens have not been educated, and will not be educated, in their responsibilities as custodians of the American experiment.

You are welcome to talk me out of this. I hope you succeed.

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