Those of us constantly assessing the national political scene could be forgiven for looking at the coming year with more than a bit of trepidation. True, new Democratic control of the House of Representatives means we might get the investigations of President Trump that Republicans have refused to do.
And as a fairly bleak 2018 comes to a close, we’re getting a taste of what might be more to come: a continuing shutdown of the federal government over funding for a border wall, simmering international crises that threaten to drag in the U.S. and an administration untested by a major crisis, and partisan monkey business in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina, where Republicans are moving to strip power from offices won by incoming Democrats.
The big unknown is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign, administration, and businesses and their connections to Russia – and how the president might react to each new drip of information to trickle out of the locked grand jury courtrooms.
So yes, it could be a very bad year.
We could choose to look at the coming year not as a pot of misery getting ready to boil over. With the right attitude, you might see – if you squint – that the proverbial glass is half-full of hope. Some things are going in the right direction.
These past two years have energized a wide swath of sensible people who have come to realize that apathy is unacceptable in the face of an administration determined to corrupt the rule of law and strip vulnerable populations of their rights. That energy has borne fruit: a historic midterm transfer of power in the House of Representatives, with 40 seats changing from Republican to Democrat. A similar upheaval is taking place at the state level, with seven governorships and five legislative chambers also going blue.
That awakened activism isn’t going away, especially since the 2020 presidential election is going to get started next summer.
While it is true that Trump’s core supporters haven’t wavered in their adulation, much of that support is reinforced by a steady media diet that starts at Fox News and goes further right. But reality has a way of penetrating even the most hermetically sealed of information bubbles. Even Trump’s cheerleaders on the morning Fox and Friends show called him out loudly in a few cases, most recently for his announcement that we were pulling troops from Syria without making contingency plans for an orderly withdrawal – or even notifying our allies who will be left without support.
There were quieter successes, too, that bode well for the year in front of us. Many of those were driven in large part by a court system that has resisted many attempts to corrupt justice. A federal judge in December upheld Maine’s ranked-choice elections. That points the way to fairer elections, ensuring that third-party votes don’t become spoilers. The judge ruled that states have wide leeway to interpret the Constitution, and ranked-choice voting falls squarely within that purview. Some states already are following Maine’s example: Utah plans to use ranked-choice voting in local elections in 2019.
The same goes for redistricting, as more states look at the dysfunction created by blatant partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina and elsewhere and decide to give the task to some sort of independent body. Also in the Tarheel State, a federal judge blocked the state’s attempt to purge voters from the rolls en masse through a loophole in the law.
And speaking of voting rights: Though the administration uses the unsubstantiated shibboleth of voter fraud to justify preemptively stripping poor people and people of color of the vote, and states impose onerous ID requirements that make it hard for them to register, those have had the opposite effect, spurring people to get even more involved in voter registration.
One of the most blatant attempts at vote suppression was a North Dakota law passed late in the midterm election cycle that required people registering to vote to have a street address, seemingly tailor-made to disenfranchise the state’s sizable Native American communities. It backfired. Tribes worked to ensure that those living even on the remotest parts of reservations would be able to register to vote. They succeeded in force, by some estimates setting voter participation records in the state.
And so we begin the new year with greater resolve and tools to safeguard our democracy.
Our ongoing humanitarian crisis on the Mexico border continues. Two children died in U.S. custody. The courts have stepped in, however, and are starting to reject some of the administration’s attempts to keep refugees out. In November, a federal judge rejected a plan that would have prevented people who entered the country illegally from seeking asylum. In December, yet another judge blocked the administration from denying asylum to people in the migrant caravan fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence in their home countries.
These judges are not just holding back the tide of autocracy, but they’re advancing the cause of justice one small court ruling at a time.
For so many reasons – which I won’t list here because this is a glass-half-full uplifting look at the year ahead, after all – the U.S.’s first experience with a modern autocrat looks likely to end in a chaotic implosion. But the Trump years have demonstrated that, while our democracy is a fragile thing that needs the force of law and the will of the people to protect it, Americans have been rising to and meeting that challenge.
Some of our leaders in Washington, D.C., are starting to recognize that.