It started at 11:25 this morning with a single clang of a pot across the street. Easy to mistake for construction noise. Then cheering, faint at first. Thinking this may be THE moment, I checked my Twitter feed. My friend Alex in southern Brooklyn tweeted, “I just heard people outside our windows whoop for joy.”
I checked the New York Times website. Nothing. But a friend who’d grown up under Communist dictatorships once told me “when you see everybody standing in a line, get in line too because it’s probably for something that you want.” With car horns now honking, I hopped out onto my balcony and started cheering as well. In my pajamas, but eight months into the pandemic, who cares?
After fifteen minutes of cheering and clapping and watching a couple of cars drive past with Biden-Harris signs — Ridin’ with Biden — I stepped inside and read that the state of Pennsylvania had been called, and regime change would commence on January 20, 2021. With the Biden-Harris ticket leading by millions of popular votes and projected to win the Electoral College by a margin of 306 to 232 (the same Electoral College margin that Trump had over Hillary Clinton despite his losing the popular vote by over three million), a would-be dictator experienced something few dictators do: Losing an election and then giving up power.
I researched this topic last night, and according to the non-governmental organization One Earth Future, only 40% of recent dictators lost elections that they called, and of those election losers, seven of eight refused to give up power.* General Augusto Pinochet, who lost his plebiscite in Chile in 1988, was a notable exception.
New York City enjoyed perfect weather today, and this afternoon I walked to Washington Square Park where one of dozens of celebrations throughout the city was taking place. On the way, more Ridin’ with Biden convertibles passed, honking. People in the park waved American flags and rainbow flags, listened to music, and tried to stay socially distanced. My son sent a picture of the twins in their stroller, enjoying a similar celebration in Union Square. Jonah looks like he’s whistling. “Wind of Change” maybe?
I’ve had “Glory” performed by John Legend and Common on repeat today, both the original Oscar-winning best song from the movie Selma and the socially-distanced performance at the Democratic National Convention at the end of August. I can’t think of a more appropriate song for the past few weeks, from the late John Lewis’s hometown of Clayton County putting Georgia in the Democrat’s column, to Common voting in his hometown of Philadelphia, the city and state where the vote margins called the election.
Tomorrow the work begins to “right the wrongs in history,” as the song says. To strengthen our democracy so we don’t allow another would-be dictator to take the reins of power, and to make sure everyone has a place in this country and a chance to thrive. We need leaders who show our young people that, in the words of CNN commentator Van Jones, “character matters.”
For the past four years, a leader of very low character turned us against each other, told Black people their lives didn’t matter, showed no respect for us, our alliances with other democracies, or our own democratic institutions. With a pandemic raging, he renounced his duty to care for us and protect us. He failed even to protect his own supporters, holding superspreader rallies in defiance of local officials who begged him not to come. He expressed support for right-wing paramilitary terrorists — the shock troops of fascist autocrats worldwide — as they threatened to kidnap and kill his political opponents.
We need a reckoning with his supporters who endorsed these acts and have so far refused to acknowledge their loss in this election. We can listen, seek truth and reconciliation, but we must not stand between those who have harmed others and the consequences of their words and actions. It isn’t often that people standing together overturn a dictatorship or stop a country from careening rapidly toward dictatorship.
We have achieved something special. Tonight we celebrate.
*Update 5/21: In reading this article to link it to one on New York City’s municipal elections, I realized that the former president was more of a traditional dictator than we’d thought. He did not seek a peaceful transition of power but rather incited an attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 to stop the constitutionally-mandated recording of electoral votes by Congress and the final certification of the election. Though the elected legislators had to seek cover to avoid the violent mob, they returned to the chambers that night to finish the certification in the wee hours of January 7, thus placing ex-president Trump’s efforts in the category of failed coup rather than a peaceful and voluntary transfer of power after losing his election.