Last night, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in Game Six of the NBA Finals, securing the franchise’s 17th championship. Two days earlier, the Heat had won a nail-biter. Game 5 had all the drama you want in a big match. I’m a Lakers fan. For me it was very stressful. I never wavered that ultimately my team would win the series but I did spend the time in between those two games anticipating drama. I also did what all people do: I prepared myself for a loss. “Well, there is still Game 7,” I reminded myself constantly. In the end, Game 6 was a rout. The Lakers led by more than 30 for much of it. At some point in the third quarter one of the ABC broadcasters said something like, “My hope for the Heat is not that they’ll be happy with the result of the game, obviously, but that they can be proud to have not given up.” There were 20 minutes left to play. It was somewhat surreal preparing myself for a game of inches that then doesn’t transpire.
Sometimes getting caught up in the polls of this election can produce a similar experience. Every indication is that Joe Biden is on pace to win convincingly on November 3. Of course there’s a lot of time left to play and—as Philip Bump notes in today’s Washington Post—something that has only a 14 percent chance of happening still happens quite a lot. And of course in the real world it makes no difference who wins the NBA title, but it very much does matter what happens in an election. So no one, least of all me, is thinking anything like that ABC broadcaster writing the Heat off in the third quarter.
Everyone has spent every day since election night 2016 psyching themselves up and going through the emotional process of anticipating a nail-biter. But what if it isn’t a nail-baiter?
In the end, the Lakers won the game by 16. The outcome wasn’t ever in doubt but they did let the Heat get back in. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if they’d won by 13 or 130. But elections aren’t zero-sum, which is one of the many reasons this analogy is flawed, and the referees are only impartial in one of these contests. The Democrats could take the Senate; the election could be close enough that it ends up in the courts; the Democrats could win Texas and President Obama’s inaccurate prediction that the GOP’s “fever would break” after the 2012 election could come true; and of course, the polls could be wrong or people could change their minds. There are no election outcomes that are simple and straightforward enough to fit in a headline.
It’s a cliche that every election is “the most important of our lives,” but it’s also true. I can’t think of an election in the last 20 years that didn’t have profound consequences. I don’t think you can either. And when the stakes are so high, everyone wants to do something.
There’s nothing Heat fans or Laker fans can do to affect the outcome of games. But that doesn’t stop us from wearing our lucky jerseys as we watch. And again it doesn’t ultimately matter what happens in those events, but it does in elections, and there are very real things people can do. We are not passive viewers in a democracy. That is especially true when democracy itself is under attack by authoritarianism. Too often in the United States people sit on the sideline. But not this year. Democrats and Republicans have both been donating to their parties at historic clips. They’re volunteering and making phone calls, and voting early and triple-checking their ballots. Maybe one of the consequences of this awful year is that it’s giving us the civic participation we should have every year. Maybe when times are better and the consequences less obviously severe, it will happen again. And then again. And people won’t remember what it was like when the fate of the country was left to only the most active subsection of citizens.
“There is everything in life but hope,” Katharine Hepburn says in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter. “We’re both alive,” Peter O’Toole responds, “and as far as I know that’s what hope is.”
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