WU professors on what to make of the election going forward
On Wednesday morning, the day after Election Day, I sat down over Zoom with John Inazu, a Professor of Law, Religion, and Political Science, and Mark Valeri, a professor of religion and politics, to ask them about the outcome of election night and some of the themes present in the 2020 campaigns.
I’m currently in a class they teach together called Religious Freedom in America, a first-year course about how religion has affected the history and legal framework of the United States since the country’s founding. Their expertise spans across historical, legal and religious topics, a combination that helped determine this election. Inazu specializes in First Amendment freedoms and legal and political theories related to the amendment. Valeri specializes in religion and social thought in America, with a focus on the nation’s early centuries.
This will be part one of a two-part conversation.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student Life: Is there anything that either of you want to say right off the bat in terms of what you saw last night [Tuesday] or what you’re feeling this morning?
John Inazu: It’s gonna take a while before we have any meaningful data to talk about, so we’re probably in the realm of conjecture on some of the secondary takeaways for a long time.
Mark Valeri: I’ve never experienced anything like this. I remember living through [the 2000 election] and there were three or four days of uncertainty. But it felt like there was a much clearer uncertainty, whereas this feels to be muddled intellectually as well as numerically.
SL: How do you think this election’s uncertainty is greater than the uncertainty in the 2000 election?
MV: After the 2000 election, there was a single state [where the ballots] were being looked at. This [election] has to do with several states, with several modes of voting; it has to do with the dates in which ballots are received. And then the President, making the claim [Wednesday] morning at 2:30 a.m. that he had won the election and that everything was illegitimate from that point on was a very distressing move. And then on top of that is the immensity of the political stakes of this election. It has to do with so many big, deep existential issues across the board: race, COVID, economic crisis, all of these things bound up into one.
JI: When it comes to national politics, a lot of people are moving from thinking that the other side is wrong to thinking that the other side is evil. When we move as human beings and citizens from “you’re wrong” to “you’re evil,” the stakes get much higher, and they become much more difficult to navigate.
SL: How are the current and in-flux results of the election similar or different from how you thought the election was going to pan out?
JI: If it’s the case, as some early exit polls suggest, that Trump’s numbers actually went up with every demographic except white men, that is counterintuitive to how I thought this would go. I think we’re going to see a lot of attention to whether the cause of increased support for President Trump among women, non-white voters and other demographics is because of a positive case for Trump or an aversion to Biden’s platform.
SL: In what ways do you think we saw religious values and doctrine play into the campaigns of both candidates differently than in past elections for either of the parties?
JI: I think we saw from the Trump campaign a consistent message from the 2016 election, which was a message to a base of white conservative evangelicals that prioritized the need to protect a vision of a Christian America, and the need to prioritize a kind of civic religion. And from the Biden campaign, I think you saw a very deliberate effort to be more publicly expressive of Biden’s own Catholic faith, and the integration of his personal faith with his political ambitions in a way that I think the Clinton campaign downplayed.
SL: What do you hope that members of the community keep in mind about American democracy as we all wait for a final verdict for the election?
JI: Regardless of one’s political views, I would hope that we would share and work to maintain certain procedural commitments such as encouraging voting and the peaceful transfer of power. We should encourage elected officials, whether campaigning or holding office, to engage generously and kindly with people who disagree with them; we should expect people who hold office to represent not just those who support them, but those who are opposed to them, and to model a kind of civic graciousness in disagreement. And as I think about students your age, it’s pretty important that we start having some models in the generations above you of healthy civic and political leadership, or else we should not be surprised if your entire generation lapses into cynicism and pessimism.
SL: Are there ways you think we need to be fighting harder to make sure we’re maintaining or creating a better democracy than the one we have now?
MV: Alexis de Tocqueville [a 19th-century French Diplomat] was so impressed with the way Americans shared information: they had these newspapers, even the smallest rustic towns in Kentucky had a newspaper; it could have been a week or two but nonetheless they shared information. He was so impressed with this public conversation.
The maintenance of democracy these days has a lot to do with rectifying misinformation and conspiracy theories, spread through the internet and other forms of social media, and I don’t have a handle on it. And this strikes me as an incredible challenge because what Tocqueville thought was, this whole democratic experiment worked if people were informed well, and I think the misinformation is daunting.
SL: Is there anything else at all that you want to add?
JI: As rightly focused as we all are on presidential politics now, let’s not forget the importance of local politics and the massively significant ways it influences the lives of our immediate neighbors, especially those neighbors who are less well-off than we are. I worry sometimes that too many of us are trading tweets and stories about presidential campaigns to the neglect of our actual neighbors and the people who are making decisions about their lives.
MV: Big ideas count and they were absent from this electioneering cycle. There were no big ideas, there were just invectives being thrown; part of that was due to COVID––it’s hard to think about big ideas when what you really want to think about is epidemiological strategies.
SL: What do you mean by big ideas?
MV: Instead of throwing the word “socialism” at someone or “this person’s tax breaks only favor the 1% of the 1%,” [we should be] talking about our understanding [of] the responsibility of the government and the nature of our common enterprise together: What are we as a nation? How do we want to be seen in the world? What is our responsibility towards the world? What is our responsibility towards poverty? How should we think of these things? Ought we vote according to our own personal economic interests? Is that the right way to vote? Is that the right way to imagine things or not? Or [do we vote towards] the creation of a just society in some way, and what is that? That’s what I mean by big ideas.