It was early December 2016. My childhood friend, a working mom in suburban Milwaukee, called me. She was in an angry, post-election funk. “Do you know about this gerrymandering problem!?” she asked. I replied that yes, I did. “It’s insane! We need to do something about it!” Yes, I said, we do.
Fast forward to the Trump presidency halftime show, and my childhood friend joined the millions of Americans who ran, organized, canvassed—and of course, voted. We haven’t seen this level of participation in a midterm election since 1914, according to Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project. Although the country remains painfully divided, American democracy won big. And it couldn’t have come at a more propitious moment, because the biggest threat to our democracy wasn’t Trump, but benign neglect.
For those of us involved with, and committed to, the institutions of democracy, we’ve witnessed the foundation slowly crumbling beneath us with each passing year. Our collective inability to solve problems big and small was a clear symptom of increasing dysfunction. All along, Americans were checked out, operating on the false assumption that our democracy was self-executing.
The election of Donald Trump served as a political defibrillator, jolting the country out of our collective stupor. Trump’s “You’re with us or against us” politics forced Americans to look in the mirror and choose sides. And let’s be clear: There was no guarantee that cynicism and complacency wouldn’t win the day. But it turns out Americans care—a lot. Which leads me to three observations at this midway point:
- Our systems of accountability are creaky but working. Luckily, democracy’s wake-up call came before our institutions were too weak to respond. We should expect continuing assaults over the next two years (and maybe even beyond) that may bring us to the breaking point. However, thus far, the electorate, the press, advocacy organizations, and the courts are functioning as a check on the President, as intended.
- We need to keep perspective. Time and again in our country’s history, we have chosen to make our society more pluralistic, not less. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to undermine this central pillar of our democracy. Trump’s vision of America is running against nearly 230 years of history.
- We need to bet on America’s future. It’s no accident that diverse American cities are thriving. Recent decisions by Google and Amazon to double down in big urban centers reflect the race for talent, which will only increase the kind of political and economic strength and dynamism that flow from youth migration, entrepreneurship, and cultural diversity. This self-reinforcing momentum is powerful and hard to thwart.
Donald Trump has brought our national identity crisis to a head in dramatic fashion. In doing so, he has done what no glossy ads, canvassers, voter education, or get-out-the-vote effort has been able to do in 100 years. He has awoken the American electorate—and reinvigorated our democracy. For that, we should thank him—even as we work to send him into retirement.