Of all the glorious celebrations to break out across this grand nation in the wake of the presidential race, finally, being called for Joe Biden on Saturday, my favorite might have been this one:
It is one thing to be so joyous by the defeat of Donald Trump that you jump on top of your car and start throwing impromptu block parties that last all day and night. It is quite another to decide that this occasion, right now, is when Christmas must start. That’s rejoicing. Christmas starts right now!
It was wonderful: Saturday’s sudden explosion of joy across our major American cities, cities that it turned out had not been burned down by Democratic mayors, was the release many Americans, most Americans, had been waiting for. It was just such a relief to know that, for all the challenges facing the Biden administration and all the divisiveness in this country, that guy will not be president very much longer. Joe Biden is a likable, good-hearted person who I believe will make a dully competent chief executive, but those people weren’t losing their minds because Joe Biden was going to become President. They were doing it because Donald Trump soon won’t be.
And that’s great! I downed a few adult beverages of jubilation myself on Saturday. There is a very real possibility that, after January 20, 2021, there might be a whole day where I wake up, go about my daily business and then go to sleep without once thinking about something truly horrible the President of the United States had done that day. It’s going to be incredible.
But when you take a step back, it is maybe a little bit strange, and definitely not healthy, that we are all this joyous at the result of a Presidential election. It was repeatedly pointed out that the street parties felt less like the emotional breakthroughs of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and more like the citizens of a former dictatorship celebrating the expulsion of an oppressive, violent regime. And … that’s maybe not great?
Part of the goal of a Biden presidency, as the candidate has himself made clear, is to reduce the temperature in this country, to make politics more functional, less chaotic, to remind everyone that they are on the same side as Americans, to work together as citizens even when they disagree with each other. It is very much up in the air whether this stated goal will be successful, or whether it’s even possible for it to be, but if you are looking for signs that it is working, how we handle our election results in the future would seem like a positive or negative indicator. I would argue a Presidential election like, say, 1996 is the model to emulate. In that election, Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole, rather handily. But it was mostly a boring race, with a boring aftermath. Clinton won, Dole lost, the Republic stood. (Clinton was far from out of the woods, as it turned out.) 2012, 1988, even 2004—these were elections in which there was a clear contrast between the two candidates, but the winners of those elections did not rejoice as if they’d been spared the gallows and the losers did not pretend they had not lost. Heck, even the heavily contested election of 2000, to the average American, felt more like a bunch of political types fighting back and forth rather than an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. (Even if maybe it should have been.) They were just, you know, elections. They were big deals! They mattered a ton! But they did not feel like life and death.
It must be so gratifying for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to see millions of people flood the streets to celebrate their victory. They both worked so hard, they are both historic figures, they both know how pivotal it is to have Donald Trump out of the White House. But they have to know that if they do their jobs correctly, there will never be such Saddam-is-gone energy and jubilation in response to a Presidential election again. The stakes are always high in an election like this. But when they have this many people feeling like democracy itself was on the line, something has gone wrong. It is not known if Biden or Harris will be running again in 2024. But if they do: Let us hope people are less happy for them next time. Let us hope it’s just another Presidential election. Let us hope we can just congratulate them, and then go back to our lives.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.