Here's the hard truth: No matter what happens with tonight's election — whether it's a landslide or contested, whether Joe Biden wins or Donald Trump is re-elected — one thing is clear: We're not going back to normal. We will still be living in a pandemic, people will still be working from home, many will still be without jobs, schools will still be remote or operating on hybrid models, masks will still be necessary everywhere. And if Trump loses, he's not going to leave the White House with anything approximating grace or ease.
If Biden wins, and even if Democrats also take the House and the Senate, there might be initial joy and relief, but it won't feel like you want it to feel.
There will be no catharsis. If Biden wins, and even if Democrats also take the House and the Senate, there might be initial joy and relief, but it won't feel like you want it to feel. If Trump wins, there will be despair and disbelief, but this time around, people have had time to emotionally prepare themselves.
There is also the fact that the Trump administration has spent four years dismantling already broken societal and governmental institutions. Trust in the government, in scientific knowledge and authority, the news media — all of it is in tatters. Congress doesn't seem to work for anything or anyone. People all over are still trying to apply for and receive unemployment benefits. The immigration system, policing, health care, housing — all of it's broken. The pandemic clarified the level of wreckage, but the decline, which, when you zoom out, is really the decline of the nation as a whole, has been happening for years.
Last week, I asked readers to tell me what, broadly speaking, they were hopeful about. Hope, as prison abolitionist and activist Mariame Kaba puts it, is a discipline — which means it's important to actively practice it, model it and talk about it. The answers I received spanned the personal and the political. They also manifested in the form of plans. In Facebook groups, local community groups, get-out-the-vote groups, questions were asked: Have you made a plan for the day after, the week after, the month after? Where will you show up, and continue to show up, no matter what happens?
Trust in the government, in scientific knowledge and authority, the news media — all of it is in tatters.
There are two types of plans, of course. Protect the Results has dozens of events planned all over the country, ready to mobilize if Trump tries to undermine election results. The Working Families Party, The Frontline, the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project and United We Dream Action have already organized a virtual town hall for the day after election night. Josh Silver, a co-founder of Represent.US, a nonpartisan group that works to fight corruption in politics, told me that like so many other groups, it has email blasts, social media posts and a "long litany of plans" prepared if Trump tries to declare victory before absentee votes are counted in a number of key states.
If Trump does try to prematurely declare himself the winner, "that's unprecedented in American history," Silver said. "It leaves the domain of precedent. It leaves the domain of partisanship. Suddenly we have a president who's declaring war on democracy itself. There's going to be a cacophony of progressive and conservative and nonpartisan groups who are calling foul." And while they can prepare for some of what might happen, there's a lot that's going to have to be, in Silver's words, "triaged." "You triage car crashes," he said. "And if Trump declares victory before millions of votes are counted, that's a car crash for democracy. So we're going to respond in kind."
This sort of organizing is also happening in far less formal ways. In September, Chi Nguyễn and a group of more than a hundred textile artists worked to raise $50,000 to support grassroots organizing efforts in battleground states led by young people and people of color. They're meeting the day after the election to make their plan for the future — which already includes focusing on smaller, down-ballot races in their communities. A member of an LGBTQ and allies group in rural Oregon told me that the group is resuming its regular Zoom meetings the day after the election, no matter what happens, and will begin to plan accordingly.
I also spoke to Ken Sofer, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is hesitant to call himself an organizer in any capacity. He's just a guy who's been emailing and texting his friends. "I've seen enough of 2020 to know that the actual worst-case scenario is often much worse than my envisioned worst-case scenario," he told me. "And my great anxiety is that if we are shellshocked by a close election, we might not mobilize fast enough to put significant public pressure on legislatures and courts to count all the ballots."
Sofer's been seeding the idea with friends across the country that there might be a need to demonstrate on Wednesday and guiding them in how to find a demonstration through Protect the Results. He and his partner have been planning for the potential to support protesters if and when they are jailed. He thinks the chances for the need for this sort of response are slim — but that doesn't mean that the mental infrastructure shouldn't be put in place for if or when it does. "I think the protest networks and personal experiences developed over the summer, via the Black Lives Matter protests, will provide potentially critical 'muscle memory,'" he said. "We know how to mobilize, where to go, what to bring and how to act when antagonized by police."
"I've seen enough of 2020 to know that the actual worst-case scenario is often much worse than my envisioned worst-case scenario."
But let's say there's no need to protest. Let's say Biden wins and Trump decides to pass over power with minimal resistance. Let's say the Democrats take the Senate and the House. Let's say you don't have to wake up every morning wondering what the president has tweeted now, what Mitch McConnell has schemed up, what basic human right Stephen Miller is trying to take away, what you're going to have to explain to your children or your parents about what the administration has done now and why it's important to stay mad about it. Imagine the sheer amount of energy and mental space that will be freed by not playing defense all the time.
In the short term, regaining that energy will feel like relief — and provide a moment, however brief, of respite. But again: The pandemic is still raging. Its effects are still distributed with horrifying inequity. People are still getting evicted and struggling to get their families enough food and dealing with increased rates of domestic violence and child abuse. If Biden wins, everything that was bad before is still bad. The fires are still burning. It's just that the accelerant has been removed from office.
When the haze of the election has cleared, that's when it's time to reactivate and re-energize the thousands of networks that have formed and grown over the course of the Trump administration — and orient them toward change. The people who've joined the thousands of organizations that popped up after Trump's election aren't just wine moms posting #Resist memes. Over the last four years, they've become highly organized, incredibly competent activists, shifting their energy from the Women's March to the 2018 midterms, from facilitating and supporting Black Lives Matter to protesting against ICE. That energy doesn't go away. But it does need to be actively cultivated and directed.
Maybe that looks like continued change and reform on the local level, whether in the form of cultivating and running diverse, quality candidates or advocating for police and housing reform. But it also means change on the federal level. In the short term: a national testing network that works. In the long term: prison abolition. Universal, affordable child care. Expansive, concerted attempts to combat climate change. Mandatory maternity and paternity leave. Shoring up LGBTQ rights. Expansive affordable housing programs. Student debt cancellation. Universal health care. Reinstating reproductive rights. Meaningful regulation of the finance industry. Universal basic income. Massive immigration reform. Statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Reparations. Expanding the Supreme Court. Restoring faith in the government systems. Substantively rebuilding social safety nets. Making policy that just generally reflects care for others, even people who don't look or vote or act like you.
Some or all of these might be your priority — and you might have more of your own. What matters is that it's on the table and worthy of our consideration and imagination. The status quo has failed us. Norms have failed us. And if we can agree that it doesn't have to be this way, what way would we like it to be? It is time to think big, think utopian, think provocatively. Because if not now, when? As Silver put it: "This is the first time in American history where the Democrats may finally see that fixing our democratic system is central to the survival of our country, much less their party. This is the first time they may finally understand that fixing these arcane laws about elections, campaign finance, conflict of interest — that this is the future of the American experiment."
When you focus on disaster mitigation for this long, it can feel profoundly weird to shift gears to hope. But as you're preparing for the possibility of a Trump win, that second plan, for a Biden victory, needs to start expanding within you. It is possible, if exhausting, to hold them both at once — and ready yourself for whichever fight it is that awaits us.