President Donald Trump’s fact-free assault on the 2020 vote, which will continue even after the Electoral College affirms on Monday that he lost and President-elect Joe Biden won, has been terrible in a variety of ways for American democracy.
It’s undermined confidence in our free and fair elections. It’s further divided the country along political lines. It’s endangered election officials for just doing their jobs. It’s threatened the long-cherished peaceful transition of power.
For all that bad, there is one good thing that has come out of Trump’s ongoing attempts to overturn an election he quite clearly lost: The average person is following the usually-mundane ways in which the election is certified and confirmed far more closely than at anytime in the past – raising, at least for the moment, our collective civic literacy.
Consider Monday: The votes of the electoral college to confirm Biden’s win. CNN – as well as the other cable networks –are going wall-to-wall with their coverage of the votes in all 50 states. There’s explainers of why we do it (the Constitution, duh) and how it will happen. Hell, faithless electors are even getting some run!
The attention paid to the Electoral College vote follows a remarkable level of engagement from the public when it came to states certifying their results. And the legal contretemps set off by Trump’s myriad attempts to use the courts to muddle the results – none of which worked. And the huge voter turnout we saw in the election itself, with Biden becoming the first candidate to win more than 80 million votes – he’s at 81-million-plus right now – and overall turnout reaching heights not seen in decades.
This is all good. Especially when you consider that our civic literacy had fallen to depressingly low levels.
Back in 2016, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showed that only 1 in 4 Americans could name all three branches of government. More depressing? Almost 1 in 3 couldn’t name a single branch of government. By the 2019 Annenberg poll, almost 4 in 10 Americans could name all three branches of government, the highest that number had been in the last 5 years. And just 1 in 5 couldn’t name a single branch of government.
Call it the “Trump Effect.” Never before in modern history have we had a president and an administration push the boundaries of acceptable (and legal) conduct while in office like Trump has done over the past four years. (Consider that 20 years ago, Al Gore conceded the 2000 presidential race to George W. Bush “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy.”)
And, because every action – in politics and life – tends to have an equal and opposite reaction, we have seen the average person become massively more engaged in the nuts and bolts of how our democracy works. By assaulting our democratic systems, Trump has made people realize what’s at stake – and why knowledge is power.
This is, of course, not true for all Americans. The fact that we are celebrating when more than 6 in 10 Americans still can’t name the three branches of government – executive, judicial and legislative, people! – suggests that while we are better informed about our government, we’re not even close to being well informed.
And there is still a decent chunk of people who are willing to ignore the state and federal laws that have governed our elections for centuries because, well, Trump tells them to.
So, we’re not even close to where we need to be. But, as a country, we know more about how we elect our representatives – and the ways in which we confirm and formalize that vote – than we have in decades. And we have Donald Trump and his unrelenting attacks on our democracy to thank for it.