On the Monday following the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House, I made the short drive from my home in Maryland down to Washington, D.C., to visit the Lincoln Memorial. It was unseasonably warm for November, and I rolled up my sleeves as kayakers propelled their bodies forward on the river behind me. Just 48 hours before, every major U.S. news network had projected that Biden had won the presidency. That outcome—even though President Donald Trump and most Republican officials were (and still are) refusing to accept it—pulled the country back from continuing on what has been an ever more dangerous trajectory. For four years, Trump has, among other things, hammered away at government accountability, dismissed the reality of systemic racism, strained relationships with our allies overseas, eroded America’s commitment to human rights around the world and at home, and ignored and exacerbated the climate crisis. Four more years of his administration would have rendered the damage even worse than it currently is.
That possibility is why I was thinking of Lincoln. His bid for a second term in 1864 was another election that could have turned American history in a far more frightening direction. But for the good fortune and lucky timing of two battles that fell in the Union Army’s favor prior to the 1864 election, slavery might have been allowed to continue in exchange for peace with the Confederacy, and our country might look very different than it does. But then, as now (at least for the time being), the United States has managed to avoid a descent into immediate catastrophe. That events could so easily have turned out the other way, however, should make Americans wary of any notion that this country glides across time and space along a natural arc of progress. Our norms, our institutions, or our systems do not inevitably bend toward justice and protect us. That has been made clear. The truth is that, in some instances, we have simply been extremely lucky. And this month, even after a period of uncertainty, we were lucky again.