The closest I ever came to death was when a ferocious undertow grabbed hold of my wife and I, carrying us out into the raging surf off Puerto Escondido, Mexico. We gagged, flailed and turned purple as we wrestled to stay afloat. Saved by a sandbar, I never looked at life the same way again.
So we find ourselves today, still holding our breath, looking back at the bloodied mess of our tattered democracy. As exhilarating as it is to cheat death, we are diminished and badly shaken by what happened this week.
Those of us in the business of crafting narrative from chaos are hard-pressed to say anything positive about the last few days. I nearly lost my faith in humanity, and certainly lost my faith in the polling industrial complex. I’m perplexed and humbled.
“Stop the count.” Of all the violations of things that we hold precious in this country, this tweet by President Donald Trump on Thursday, demanding that millions of voters be disenfranchised so he can steal an election, is the one that will live in infamy.
But let’s find some light in the darkness. Trump’s electoral ambulance chasing, the inchoate chants of supporters to simultaneously stop the count and count the vote (depending on the state) will change nothing.
Joe Biden is winning the popular vote by close to a 3-point margin. That’s no small thing. John F. Kennedy won by less than 1 percentage point. Ronald Reagan rode into the White House in 1980 with just over 50% of the total vote. Bill Clinton became president with 43% of the vote in a race with three major candidates.
A President-elect Biden would mean the first African American vice president in Kamala Harris. The first woman veep, as well. History, noted.
It would mean the United States could again join the community of nations committed to saving this gasping, burning, overwhelmed planet. Public lands would remain in public hands.
It would mean that the pipeline of partisan, retrograde federal judges would be shut off, for now. Ditto the Supreme Court, should Biden get a pick.
It would mean science and truth would be guiding principles at the highest level of government — this coming just as we enter a long dark season of COVID-19 deaths because science and truth were ignored.
It would mean that the executive office would no longer be actively fighting to take away health care from millions of Americans. Think about a springtime that could bring a coronavirus vaccine, a revived economy and a restoration of decency and civility.
Looking at the bigger picture, Democrats were done in by extreme voices that Trump was able to link to their party. Defunding the police will never be popular outside a few lefty precincts. The whiff of socialism helped kill Democrats in Florida.
In California, voters rejected ballot measures that would have delivered a return of affirmative action and a bill to expand rent control. The result was a wake-up call for the overly woke.
In battered Portland, Oregon, where violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement have brought terror to the streets, a candidate who embraced antifa lost to the more moderate mayor, Ted Wheeler.
The violent fringe on the left helped Trump. The violent fringe on the right, sadly, did not appear to hurt him. In the closing days of this campaign, the president appeared to lend his support to a truck brigade that had tried to run a Biden bus off the road in Texas. He suggested locking up his political opponents and reveled in crowds chanting to fire the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert.
But let’s look to better days ahead and begin repairing our broken democracy. A presidential candidate could win the popular vote by nearly 5 million votes, but depending on where those votes are cast, he or she could still lose in the archaic Electoral College, the fortress for the tyranny of the minority. Only once in the last 30 years have Republicans won the popular vote.
There is still a possibility that this election could end up in an Electoral College tie of 269 to 269. If that happens, the next president would be determined by the new House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote.
Thus, California, where nearly 1 in 8 Americans live, with 53 members in the House, would have the same power as Wyoming, a state with a lone representative in the House and a declining population.
The obvious flaw here — that the person who gets the most votes does not necessarily win — could be neutralized by the National Popular Vote Compact, in which all of a participating state’s electoral votes are pledged to the winner of the national popular vote.
On Tuesday, Colorado voters approved joining the compact, which now has 15 states plus the District of Columbia, representing 196 electoral votes. More states are needed to push it past the 270-vote margin where it could go into effect. But for now, it’s the best vehicle for bringing the American system closer to one that reflects the will of the people.
Ah, the will of people. Who knows what the hell that is. Yes, it’s karmic justice that three of the states pivotal in electing Trump — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — now look like three that will fire him. And for that slim majority, and the rest of us, may mourning in America soon turn to morning in America.
Timothy Egan, winner of the National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time,” is a Seattle-based opinion writer for The New York Times.