I found myself challenged a couple days ago on Facebook by an ardent Canadian food rights supporter after I disputed her suggestion that Joe Biden won the American presidency because of voter fraud. “You’ve tossed your lot in with a strange crowd, David. You really need to reconsider which side of the fence you’re on. I’ve always been puzzled by your support for raw milk freedom on the one hand but your proclivity to support socialism on the other.”

A crowd gathered spontaneously in Northampton, MA, Saturday afternoon to celebrate the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president. (Photo by Sam Topal)

Well, that led into a back-and-forth in which I expressed support for the rule of law over the rule of a strongman, and she said she was for liberty over the rule of law.

There has been lots written already about how the presidential election didn’t feature a strong mandate for Joe Biden, especially since he’ll likely have to deal with a Republican Senate. That may be, yet I still think the election was a huge deal for democracy in the U.S., because a loss by Biden would have very likely led America much further down the road of authoritarian rule. As just one major example, Donald Trump had made clear his disdain for mail-in voting, and the democratic participation it encouraged during a pandemic.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this election would have been America’s last free and open election for many years if Trump had been re-elected. A major goal of any authoritarian leader is to avoid elections or, if they are held, to make them so restrictive that they are democratic in name only.

How can I be so sure? Because Trump had taken any number of other actions completely contrary to the U.S. Constitution and related precedent; for example, ignoring Congressional subpoenas and failing to spend appropriated funds as directed by Congress. There was plenty more, of course–the encouragement of white supremacy organizations, the racist put-downs of outspoken women of color, the idolization of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and other dictators, and so on and so forth.

My involvement in food rights has always been predicated on my concern for larger rights. To the extent we are deprived from choosing the foods we wish to nourish ourselves with, we are threatened with the loss of other rights. The issue as it plays out with respect to access to raw milk and farm-slaughtered meat has actually become less intense in recent years, perhaps as concerns for other freedoms has grown.

A democratic system relies in significant measure on a certain amount of good will by politicians. Once that evaporates, there is no way to force accommodation; for example, the U.S. House of Representatives never had a way to force Trump advisers to testify before Congressional committees once he ordered his advisers to refuse. Judges might issue decisions in favor of testimony, but those came months after the event, and were ignored as completely as the original subpoenas.

And that begins to explain the spontaneous celebrations that broke out across the U.S. yesterday once the major media networks called the election for Joe Biden. Never before in American history, that I am aware of, had Americans celebrated an election result with such an outpouring of spontaneous joy. It certainly wasn’t because Biden is such a charismatic or exciting figure. No, it was a celebration of relief, a recognition that we had come oh so close to losing our precious democracy, and that once lost, it takes years to recover, if recovery is even possible. This isn’t to say we are out of the woods in terms of hanging onto our freedoms. When divisions are as wide and opinions as divided and discussion as heated as it routinely has become, the political volatility is potentially threatening.

But for now, we seem to have dodged a bullet. The military has remained on the sidelines. And the heavy participation in the election process–something like 70% of voters are estimated to have taken part in the presidential election–suggests a ramping up of political participation in the future. That has to be positive, because it’s been apathy and discouragement that has allowed the forces of authoritarian politics to advance as far as they have. So for now, it’s as if a load has been lifted from America’s collective psyche.