Though Crazy, This Election Is Another Indication of America's Greatness | Opinion

"What a country!" Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff used to say back in the 1980s, marveling at the wonder that was America. That's the phrase that kept turning over in my mind in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

Smirnoff was also a secret agent of sorts, for he would regularly feed jokes that mocked the totalitarian Soviet system to then-President Ronald Reagan, through his aides—jokes that would later end up being told by Reagan to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, much to the latter's chagrin.

One of Reagan's favorites was about a Russian and an American who were arguing about the merits of each country. "I can walk into the Oval Office, pound my fist on the table and say 'President Reagan, I don't like the way you're doing your job!' the American boasted. 'Big deal!' said his Russian friend. 'I can walk into the Kremlin, pound Gorbachev's desk and say 'I don't like the way President Reagan is doing his job.'"

It's a reminder, before we collectively forget, just how special both America and our elections are. Whatever happens with President Trump's attempt to change the presumptive results of the election through means our system entitles him to pursue, the fact nonetheless remains that each election is a reminder of our amazing country, which gives us so many freedoms that we take for granted at our own peril, and which must be exercised and defended constantly.

In not a few countries today, it's against the law to change one's religion. In others, freedom of speech is severely limited—in other places, not guaranteed at all. And still in other countries, "votes" aren't votes at all, but preordained elections designed to make the "dear leader" appear to have a mandate from his people.

But not here.

In 2005, when Kanye West, the son of 1960s-era progressive activists, famously took the mic away from Taylor Swift, the home-schooled daughter of conservative Christians, who could possibly have predicted that 15 years later, West would be one of the highest-profile supporters of a president who has governed more conservatively than any in history—while Swift would lobby her fans to support the Democratic candidate?

And who might have predicted that the biggest Christian rock band in history, dc Talk, would see its African-American singer Michael Tait praying with President Trump in the White House, enthusiastically endorsing him, while his white counterpart Kevin Max publicly supported the Democratic nominee?

And who could have predicted that a president consistently called racist by his political enemies would garner the largest share of the black vote for a Republican since 1960, as well as 36 percent of the Hispanic vote?

Then there is this curious bit of information that Newsweek documented: A Democratic presidency may have come about because millennial evangelicals, many of them anti-abortion, decided they couldn't stomach Trump's bad manners for four more years and therefore voted for Joe Biden.

North Dakota prairie
North Dakota prairie Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

While elections are by their nature messy and divisive affairs, in the context of thousands of years of world history, our elections are nothing short of miraculous. Our elections defy history itself—a history, that is, mostly comprised of people unable to govern themselves and choose their leaders freely, let alone transfer power from one individual to another in relative peace.

To be sure, that very concept will be put to the test in the weeks ahead, as President Trump is likely to take every possible measure to overturn the presumptive results of this election. But regardless of that, what I'm most moved by this election season is the fact that we Americans have what other countries don't have, even today: the right to change our minds freely on any topic, and vote for whomever we want.

But there are also troubling signs on the horizon that we must watch carefully. What is referred to as the "shy Trump voter" is really the lying Trump voter, because societal pressure against Trump supporters was so great and distrust of those in power so strong, that many have resorted to lying to pollsters.

I encountered three such voters this past election cycle: Trump supporters who told pollsters that they intended to vote for Biden. One went so far as to even mislead the questioner when asked about the issue most important to her, replying that it was the environment when it actually wasn't.

Those are our early warning signs of a slide into totalitarianism—a nation in which citizens don't feel free to express themselves to those around them, a phenomenon I documented in my film, No Safe Spaces.

Those who win elections almost always assert they have a mandate, and a President Biden will be no exception. Almost without exception, rulers also misread their mandates, something that often leads to overreach and trouble when they attempt to implement policies that were never part of that mandate.

In the case of a potential Biden presidency, his mandate, a victory tempered by a surging GOP in the House and a likely holding of the Senate, is not for specific policies. Rather, it is a mandate for good manners and civility. This is an electorate, after all, that is simply exhausted by a president who was too often unnecessarily divisive.

It was President Reagan, no slouch of an ideologue himself, who once turned to an aide and said, "because our beliefs and policies are so controversial, we have to go out of our way to be gracious to people."

The president taking office on January 20 needs to remember that mandate, and the rest of us need to remember that our system, with all its flaws, is a historical aberration—and that if we want to keep it, we have to grant each other the maximum amount of freedom and tolerance to allow each of us to exercise and express our consciences freely and without fear.

Mark Joseph is a filmmaker, author and Newsweek senior columnist. He is the producer of the docudrama No Safe Spaces, available for streaming now.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.