My friends, the electoral college meets today, finalizing what we all knew to be true on November 8, but some seem to be having trouble accepting, and it is time to have a little talk. Please pull up a chair and have a seat, because this is important.
Daddy is not going to save you.
Now please stop harassing poor President Obama and let him have his family vacation in peace, staring grimly out across the idyllic Hawaiian landscape as he thinks about how all of his hard work of the last eight years is about to be flushed down the toilet. This good man — and oh, how I will miss him — is not going to rescue you from the impending Trumpocalypse, nor is he going to magically reverse centuries of oppression by 11:59 AM on January 20th.
And to be honest, this is a good thing. Bear with me here.
Let's be real: The United States was founded by a very small, very not-diverse group of people with very specific ideas in mind about how a country should be run. While this huge myth of resisting tyranny and fighting the good fight has arisen, the Founders were feeling pretty confident about who they thought should have political and social power, and they constructed governmental systems accordingly.
The checks and balances system ostensibly limits abuses of authority, but also in some senses can act to entrench them by creating the illusion of freedom. That interconnected relationship of executive, legislative, and judicial can act in balance and harmony — or a group of upstarts in one branch or another can be so obstructionist that they effectively bring the nation to a grinding halt, as has been the case with a large faction in Congress in recent years. These situations create a bind for the other branches, as happened with President Obama, who began to rely heavily on executive authority in an attempt to actually get things done and run the country while Congressional Republicans acted like a bunch of belligerent, drunken sheep.
The electoral college rolls on up into this in what was originally designed as a compromise: Instead of having the president chosen by Congress, or directly elected by the people, the electors are supposed to make this decision after being advised by the public. Slave states were particularly concerned about exerting their influence — hence the push to count slaves toward their total allocations, without actually allowing them to vote.
The thing about this system is that sometimes it works to our advantage, and at other times, it does not. Progressives often feel like they're getting the short end of the stick, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that the system is kind of designed to keep it that way. But in recent weeks, I have seen repeated demands that President Obama wildly exceed executive power and privilege, and this is a mistake.
It's a mistake because were the shoe on the other foot, progressives would be righteously outraged and furious. Look, for example, to North Carolina, where the legislature basically just pushed through a coup to seize power from the incoming Democratic governor after its repeated attempts at voter suppression failed. Progressives are enraged, as well they should be. Were a president to make a similar move to strip people of power, progressives would be furious.
What's good for the goose is good for the gander — to maintain the integrity of the system, we have to push for incremental change to shift how power is allocated and held. We cannot decide that we don't like the rules because we are losing, so we should set them all on fire and act like the fundamental rules of order will somehow prevail. A slew of petitions and desperate last-ditch attempts ignore the reality of functioning in society. We are facing a terrifying authoritarian regime, and if you think that it would happily turn tail and hand over the reins after a stern talking-to from President Obama, you aren't a student of history.
There are a lot of calls for upending the system and moral imperative and revolution and any number of other things, and they're all noble and good. In 2000, when I was young and naive, I had similar thoughts in mind. And the Bush presidency was bad — not as bad as a Trump presidency will be — but we did see shifts, and we clung to those. President Obama built on those shifts. The country was a better place for it.
But President Obama also has a keen understanding of the limits of executive power and the public's tolerance for abuses of it, as well as an intimate connection with the incredibly polarized nature of the electorate. He understands what many progressives are in denial about: That this revolution they call for, this rebellion of the executive, can turn violent, and nasty. That setting precedents means his successor can do the same. That the people who did vote for Donald Trump and do support his policies are unlikely to calmly acquiesce to any radical action from the Obama Administration — one that would likely still result in the selection of a Republican president, just a different Republican president.
In the last year, we have watched Trump's followers engage in horrific acts of violence while trying to convince themselves that they are a marginalized, oppressed minority. Now, they see their star ascendent, and any attempt to interfere with that could spark a "revolution" that progressives aren't ready to handle. It's easy for those who sit in positions of power and comfort to dismiss the potential consequences of radical civil unrest, or even revolution. The consequences are abstract to them. Some Americans would pay a high price for high-handed moral outrage.
Maybe you think this is defeatist thinking, but I call it something else: Realistic. This is not to say that I think we should take a Trump presidency or its potential abuses and excesses lying down. To the contrary: We have a moral imperative to do something about it, at every level of government. Which means that it's time to stop looking expectantly to the White House and then talking about how disappointed and betrayed you are that President Obama is not arriving on a white horse to save you.
It's time to take a look at the world around you. To pick a cause and make it yours, to pursue it throughout the presidency and at every level of government. Maybe it's climate change. Maybe it's disability rights. Maybe it's homeless services. Whatever it is, learn it, know it, own it, upside down and backwards. Show up at city council meetings and write your legislators and take advantage of public comment periods on proposed federal rules and legislation.
And when the administration attempts to overstep its boundaries — which it already is, and is continuing to do — hold it accountable. Know what open democracy looks like and what it means to you, and defend that value. Do so knowing that it was infuriating and heartbreaking to see the Trump Administration take power, but also knowing that the rule of democracy is important to you, that were the tables reversed and conservatives viciously pursuing dubiously legal means to keep a Democratic president-elect out of the White House, you would be enraged.
It is clear that this was not a free and fair election. This was not the will of the people, and we all understand that. How we respond to that election, and what we do with those results, though, will determine the future of this country. Maybe you're ready to throw in the towel on America and burn it all down. I'm not. Not quite yet.