Let's face it. The 2016 presidential election has been alternately depressing, frightening, and angering just about all of us. Whether it's the endless string of dire and negative campaign ads, the explosive rhetoric and angry debates on social media, or all the yelling on all-news TV networks, this has been a brutally long and nasty election.
Even the American Psychological Association says election stress is affecting most Americans in one way or another. Simply put, we all need a reason to cheer up about this election and the sooner the better. And guess what, there are plenty of reasons to believe this election already has been a great boost to our democracy. Here are the top 3:
1) Participation, interest, and hope are up
It started in the primaries when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders surprised all the experts by encouraging millions of new people to get involved in the electoral process. Trump packed arenas even before the 2016 calendar year began. Later, he induced a massive surge in voter registration and party affiliation changes among previously disaffected voters.
Sanders spawned a vigorous new movement of his own, especially from younger voters. The result was that even before the general election period began, a lot of people were getting involved in the political process for the first time or returning to it after giving up hope for years.
This is showing up in more ways than just boosted registration rolls. Google is now reporting that the number of searches where people are asking where and how to vote in this election are up a whopping 233 percent from where they were during the same period for the 2012 election.
And a new BuzzFeed report says that between mid-July and mid-October, YouTube users spent the equivalent of more than 545 years watching video of presidential contenders on Facebook.
Meanwhile, the many unique twists and turns in this election has had people scrambling to get clarity on our election laws and rules. When Trump recently said and tweeted that early voters can change their votes, much of the country learned that was indeed true in six states.
When the calls went out for the GOP to replace Trump after the "Access Hollywood" tape came out and others made similar calls for the Democrats to replace Clinton after every FBI email prove and Wikileaks revelation, millions of Americans scrambled to learn how such a replacement process could be carried out.
When Trump threatened to block all Muslims from coming into the country even temporarily, there was a similar scramble to find out if that was legally possible. The list of these instances from just the last 10 months or so goes on and on. There can be no doubt that engagement and learning about our political process is soaring, and isn't that what all our Social Studies and Civics teachers told us was the most important thing? Actually, this election really must be a dream for anyone in the history or political science teaching profession.
And then there's the boost the polls are giving to anyone who wants to believe their vote really counts. Those polls have been close enough that as many as 19 states can be considered as toss ups right now. That's a much bigger total of battleground states than almost any election in recent memory. And that means more Americans will go to the polls Tuesday or vote early with the feeling that their vote means something this time.
This debunks the depressing expert assessments that the U.S. is becoming hopelessly partisan along traditional liberal/conservative or red/blue lines. An electorate that can change its mind despite years of thought-hardening trends is an electorate that's mentally healthier and more thoughtful.
2) This time, we have a real choice between the two candidates
Presidential candidates always say every election is the most important contest of our lifetimes because of the supposed major policy differences compared to their opponents. History hasn't backed those claims up. For the most part, most major party candidates end up agreeing on the key aspects of foreign and even domestic policy.
Trump proves the remarkable uniformity of the Democratic and Republican establishments every time both of those establishments decry him... which has been often. This time, whether its trade, immigration, Middle East wars, and even education, we have two candidates with very different policies that present the voters with a stark choice at the ballot box.
A great deal of liberal and conservative orthodoxies have actually been questioned, and they've been questioned by Democrats' and Republicans' own core voters! Talk about a scenario that's been long overdue. This process is an essential ingredient of a healthy democracy. When no viable candidates challenge enough of the status quo on policies that affect so many of us, that's not a good thing. An electorate that demands at least the same number of choices in elections that the public gets in the supermarket cereal aisle is a strong and engaged electorate.
3) Money didn't matter as much in this election cycle
People have been writing off the political process in this country for more than a 100 years as simply the result of big money interests getting what they want. This election has already put a significant dent in that defeatist conclusion. Just about all the biggest corporate/Wall Street donors tried their best to stop the Trump and Sanders campaigns before they could blossom. That effort failed.
In the general election, Clinton has out-raised Trump by massive amounts at every turn, and yet this election remains very close. Sanders and Trump have thus laid the groundwork for more future candidates to run very potent campaigns even at significant fundraising deficits. Of course, the big political money machine still has major advantages. But it seems a lot less unbeatable now.
None of the above is likely to change your mind if the primary source of your election stress or anger is the image of either Trump or Clinton in the White House. But it should provide you with a decent amount of facts to think about when you consider the direction of the country as a whole in the years during and after a Trump or Clinton presidency.