There’s so many things that would have flummoxed Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson about the giddy, often crude, and nonstop Joe Biden victory party that coursed through the streets of Philadelphia on Saturday, from the whirlybirds that flew overhead to the disco beats of the Village People. They would definitely have some questions about what a “jawn” is. But they absolutely would have recognized its throbbing heart: the spirit of 1776.
In the gritty place where it all started 244 years ago, where Philadelphia freedom got corrupted and contented by brass-knuckle ward politics, and where money talked and BS walked in Abscam, something incredible just happened — and at the end of 2020, the nation’s annus horribilis, no less. America’s founding city fell in love with democracy all over again.
It was all too fitting that when CNN called the election at 11:24 a.m. on Saturday, signaling the end of the crass, dishonest, and dangerously authoritarian presidency of Donald Trump, it was a batch of Philadelphia ballots, meticulously and honestly counted inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on a webcam for all the world to see, that gave the commonwealth’s 20 electoral votes to the Democratic ticket. It was a Philly Special that put Biden over the 270 number of electors he needed to become president-elect.
Probably like most of the tens of millions of Americans who dreamed of this day ever since about 2 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, I’d sort of imagined the victory party, but frankly nothing prepared me for a day like Saturday — for the moment I turned onto Third and Christian Streets in South Philly and saw folks streaming out of rowhouses, banging their kitchen pots with a stick while passing cars honked, the new victory whoop for an age of coronavirus.
When I finally reached the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where a week that so many had dreaded had instead turned into a modern-day American Bandstand dance party outside the room where the vote-counting happened, the crowd now filled several blocks of Center City. They were chanting, “It’s ... all ... over!” and breaking out into Steam’s 1969 classic, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” the day’s second-most popular song after a certain ditty by YG and the late Nipsey Hussle that seemed to blare from the speakers of every passing car.
“This is what should have happened four years ago — this is karma,” Joe Hinchey, a union sprinkler fitter from Ridley Park in Delaware County, told me as he watched the madness unfold with his wife, Josie, both wearing the handwritten “Count Every Jawn” T-shirts they’d created the day before. Like the other revelers I spoke with, the Hincheys spoke of a four-year nightmare under Trump — “stomach-aching,” Josie called it — and their hope that somehow, Biden could be the man to make America less divided.
“You have the right person in charge who’s going to get us back to where we should be — enough of the chaos, enough of the conspiracy theories, enough of the craziness,” said Joe Hinchey, as the couple waited for some of their seven children to join them in Center City, and showed off a gleeful “Biden won!” text from their 10-year-old granddaughter, full of heart emojis.
Nearby, Yolanda Jennings — a 54-year-old anti-domestic-violence advocate from North Philadelphia — was doing a 360-degree spin with her smartphone, trying to absorb the chaotic scene for her friends across the country as she broadcast on Facebook Live.
“With all the stuff we’ve been going through, it’s been hard to feel good — or even know what feeling good feels like,” Jennings told me. “This is much better than I could have imagined” — especially her joy in knowing that Sen. Kamala Harris will become America’s first female vice president, a woman of color no less. And she really loved “the part that Philadelphia played such a key role because he” — Trump, of course — “talked about us so bad, he tried to run us through the mud, and Philly said, ‘Heck, no, you’ve got to go.’”
That was the truly amazing part, that Philadelphia — a city that had been picking at the giant chip on its civic shoulder for decades — suddenly found itself center stage in the fight to save the steaming beakers of an ancient American Experiment that started here back in the 18th century. The fraught first week of November felt like the exclamation point on a conservation that started just a few blocks southeast of the Convention Center, over at Independence Hall in those sweltering summers of 1776 and again in 1787 — over who would vote, how a government could represent its people, and whether the United States could be a republic, and, if so, how we could keep it.
Yes, we live in a world with all those modern conveyances like flatscreen TVs and Facebook Live that Franklin, Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and all the others couldn’t have fathomed, which made it so much easier for the problem that the Founders absolutely did imagine — a vainglorious fool with monarchical ambitions — to snake charm at least 70 million people down a road to autocracy.
But at the end of a seemingly endless presidential election, punctuated by the predictable Twitter bleats from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and an overheated TV news cycle that boiled over every hour or two, the real winner in the 2020 election — even more than Biden and the improbable happy ending to his long, strange trip to the presidency — was democracy itself, and how everyday people cut through all the background noise to pull off the rescue.
Everything that was thrown in the path of citizens to discourage them from taking part — from Trump’s baseless claims that the election would be rigged to the stunning slowdown of the U.S. mail and the body blows from decades of GOP voter suppression that created lines of six or even 12 hours at early polling places — made everyday folks more determined to crawl through all that barbed wire and vote. When all those ballots are counted, it’s likely that more than 150 million Americans will have voted, a staggering number that once seemed impossible.
Like any long-term relationship, too many Americans learned to take for granted all the things that had made us swoon — however imperfectly — for democracy in the first place. Few folks even paid much attention to stuff like voter ID laws, or closing polling places in Black neighborhoods or on college campuses, until it was almost too late. That made it too damn easy to turn the anger of the 1960s into the cynicism of the 1970s, into the apathy that corroded our country for decades, until a charlatan and con man fooled us once, and — shame on us — almost fooled us twice.
Instead, we watched America renew its vows to live and breathe that Philadelphia freedom — creating this crazy and unexpected wedding day when grown men openly wept in public while the rest of us popped bottles of champagne and raced to the dance floor to embarrass ourselves when the DJ blasted “YMCA.”
And we celebrated the spirit of ’76 in the ghosts of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, whose passings in 2020 reminded us all of the people who were willing to be beaten for democracy. And we saw it in so many modern-day heroes — like Stacey Abrams, but also a lot of unsung, lesser-known Black and brown women who worked tirelessly in the red hills of Georgia, a state sweltering with voter suppression — who proved that every single vote counts. Just as the Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones reminded us in her elegiac 1619 Project, it was all the people who fought the hardest to get their foot into the sometimes harsh door of American liberty — from the hard Navajo lands of Arizona to the deep-poverty wards of North Philly — who yet again burst in to save it.
On Monday, America’s long workweek begins. There’s still no easy answer for the nation’s deep divisions —represented at the Convention Center by the 30 or so diehards who stood watch glumly on Saturday behind metal barricades, their Trump flags motionless in the balmy air of Indian summer — let alone the climate change that probably made the day so warm, or the coronavirus that caused the throng to breathe in victory through a mask. There will be a time to mourn, a time to fight, a time to march — but for one glorious November day, it was a time to celebrate. Philadelphia freedom, we love you ... yes, we do.