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Week In Politics: What The Presidential Election Is Saying About U.S. Democracy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Way back on Monday, I opened the show saying it is going to be a week for the history books. Well, it's Friday, and - yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.

JOE BIDEN: It's not my place or Donald Trump's place to declare who's won this election. That's the decision of the American people.

TRUMP: This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country.

BIDEN: It ain't over until every vote is counted, every ballot is counted.

TRUMP: If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.

BIDEN: Democracy is sometimes messy. It sometimes requires a little patience as well.

KELLY: Well, patient or not, we are still awaiting the results of this presidential election. Here to talk through the week in election politics so far, David Brooks of The New York Times and Jonathan Capehart. He's an opinion writer for The Washington Post and host of the "Cape Up" podcast.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

KELLY: So as journalists, we sometimes think of our work in a week such as this as writing the first draft of history, which prompts me to ask, for your opening sentence in the chapter of American history books that one day will chronicle this week, what would it be? Jonathan, you first.

CAPEHART: Mine would be, the greatest threat to American democracy since the founding of the republic, the greatest threat to the nation since the Civil War was ushered out of the White House by the largest presidential turnout in the nation's history.

KELLY: David.

BROOKS: I'd endorse that one. But mine would be, in the first part of the 21st century, America divided into two equal, non-overlapping camps. And for a time, people in both these camps thought they could win some miracle election victory and make the other side disappear. In 2020, they realized the other side is not going away, and we just have to find a way to live together.

KELLY: Hmm. You're prompting me both to think about something I wanted to ask already, which is - David, to you first - what has this election revealed about the huge divides between red and blue America?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, if ever there was going to be a landslide election, I thought this would be it. I - you know, Donald Trump is, in my view, a morally corrupt person who's been an incompetent president. And so I expected a 10-point Biden win. It didn't come. The electorate surprised us in all sorts of ways - Republicans picking up seats in the House, Trump getting more non-white voters than any Republican in 60 years, gay voter - the gay vote for Trump or for Republicans doubling. So people it's - I guess it's taught a little humility about making generalizations about people based on some category, that the voters are going to surprise us and that it's always shifting. But we are still bitterly divided but in new and unique ways.

KELLY: Hmm. Jonathan, where do you land on this, about the very deeply divided country that whoever our next president is, is going to have to steer?

CAPEHART: Well, David has heard me say this before, but I do and still believe that this election is not just a choice between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, but it's a choice between American democracy and white supremacy. And I think that if we are going to have these two overlapping - these two camps that are overlapping but not joining, as David said, if we're going to have them come together, have this nation come together, we must as a nation talk about the role of race in our politics and in our society. The longer we ignore the role of race at play, the longer these divisions are going to go on and the deeper they will get.

KELLY: Hmm. Let me invite your thoughts on what seems to me like a piece of good news that we witnessed this week, which is, given all the questions going in about election security, about whether we would witness a free and fair election, about whether democracy would hold, it's holding. The system seems to have worked. Jonathan.

CAPEHART: You know what? I do believe, for me, that is one of the big surprises and actually one that gives me great relief because in the days leading up to the - not just the days - the few months leading up to the election, given what was coming out of the White House from the president, from his campaign, I did worry that in the couple days before the election and then in this period that we're in now that we would see all sorts of mayhem in the streets. And instead, what we're seeing are the institutions that have been stressed for the last four years holding up and maintaining the rule of law.

KELLY: David?

BROOKS: I was really cheered by a statement the Republican state legislators in Pennsylvania issued, saying they would have no role in deciding this election. And that's - the nightmare scenario was that the Republicans in certain states like Pennsylvania would put up their own slate of electors, and the governor - the Democratic governor would put up another and we get dueling slates of electors, and that's the nightmare.

KELLY: Yeah.

BROOKS: But that seems like it's not going to happen. And it's partly because, you know, Donald Trump rules by fear, not affection. And now that Republicans see him going out the door, they're very happy to lie back and let it happen. They're not really motivated to be loyal to whatever he says anymore because the fear is now gone because Election Day is over.

KELLY: Let me see if I can ask a question where the two of you might not completely agree here, which is this. If, as is looking more likely, it ends up being Joe Biden who wins this election, how much actually changes? Jonathan.

CAPEHART: It depends on what you mean by what changes. When I hear you say that, I'm wondering if you mean by legislatively the way Washington works and I...

KELLY: Sure. Yeah, take it any direction you want.

CAPEHART: Yeah. I, quite frankly, don't see how anything changes in the short term.

KELLY: Why? Because it still looks likely to be a Republican-controlled Senate?

CAPEHART: Right, Republican-controlled Senate, Democratically-controlled House where the Senate and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has every incentive, as he did during President Obama's first term. His desire then was to make President Obama a one-term president. That will be his - would be his goal if Joe Biden is the next president of the United States.

KELLY: David, what do you think? If Biden wins, what actually changes?

BROOKS: I have some - a little more completely unrealistic optimism.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BROOKS: We're blessed by the fact...

KELLY: Go for it.

BROOKS: ...That we've got a lot of old people now running the country. Biden, Pelosi, McConnell - they're legislators, and they're legislators from an era when people still did legislate. I have some hope, especially on working class issues, they're going to get something done. The other thing - two other things that changes very quickly. One, the pressure of Trump's constant presence is gone. I can't tell you how much difference that's going to make in all our lives. Second is the national conversation. And just to go back to Jonathan's point about systemic racism, sometimes we have to have that conversation. But that narrative can't obliterate the narrative of 70 million Trump voters who are - who feel themselves living out a different narrative, a narrative where they're being disenfranchised. Somehow we have to be able to have both those conversations at once.

KELLY: Closing thoughts for another wild week there from David Brooks of The New York Times and Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post.

Thank you very much.

CAPEHART: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN SPHERES'S "ISHONSAX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.