LIKE the astronaut facing the stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’ve been watching the CNN coverage of the presidential election. But there’s one stretch of their reporting that will be the most memorable for me. Even more so than Trump’s rambling, narcissistic coup attempt from the White House press room.

It centres on Mr Al Schmidt (could you get more European-American?), who is Philadelphia’s city commissioner. Schmidt is a registered and vocal Republican Party supporter and also in charge of that county’s electoral process.

Groomed, smart-casual, tortoise-shell framed, Mr Schmidt looked and sounded like the dullest, procedural public official ever. But in his steady, even stolid commitment to a methodical and accurate vote count, to my ears he sounded the horn of angels.

I’m such an Americanophile, of such long-standing, that I even love to hear about boring, functioning, institutionally effective America. As well as the cyclotron America of paradigm busters, artistic quasars, eloquent movements, endless pluralism (maybe also, now, endless polarisation).

Because of its revolutionary history, America is a country where everybody is given an education in “civics” (think “modern studies” for Scotland). In my working life and engagements with America, I’ve dealt with academics, musicians, technologists, activists, corporates. I’ve always had the sense that everyone feels like a citizen of their country, not a subject of some inherited order.

There’s a latent, permanent energy in this. The Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis once coined the phrase “laboratories of democracy” to describe the role of states in America’s federal structure.

The US is built to “experiment” with policies and institutions, with good ideas emulated and extended throughout the republic. (And yes, bad ones: the movement of “states’ rights” has often been captured by racists and misogynists, trying to defy anti-discrimination moves sweeping across the country and the world).

But this only goes to prove that American democratic life is probably at its best when its machinery is animated by turbulent social energies. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #SunriseMovement, #Sanders (the Twitter hashtag an entirely American invention) are of course responding to terrible crimes and injustices.

Yet these imaginative, determined activists – asking the deepest questions of a political culture that can produce a sexist bigot like Trump – still aim, at least in part, to refresh the official constitutional system.

And in the American way, it does so by generating extraordinary, charismatic individuals who embody the political spirit of the republic. Who can listen to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat-registered socialist reelected in Queens this year, and not imagine her as a presidential candidate at some point?

So CNN’s incantation to “respect the voting process” is anchored much deeper than just defending an election against a cheap gangster. It’s about protecting the notion that America is designed to renew and revise itself. At best, this means an improvisatory attitude that constantly throws up new options and ideas. It’s why you fall in love with the place.

But at worst… such pluralism becomes polarisation. Let’s assume Biden finally gets a clear stretch at governing (beyond the tender mercies of Republican legal teams). His most prudent early policy may be about taming and decelerating the engines of polarisation.

There seems to be one dominant sociological fact coming out of the last few days. Which is that the party divide between urban and rural/ex-urban America isn’t just opening up between states and regions, but within states themselves.

The studio graphics of the last few nights have shown millions of acres of Republican red-lands in many states – with geographical scraps of densely populated city districts in Democrat blue, tipping the balance to Democrats.

The high overall national turnout, and the massive growth in numbers for each party’s candidate, indicates that the citizens have certainly been engaged (though 80 million not voting, just sitting on their hands, is still a huge number). Yet this has been fuelled by the deliberate intensification of a culture war between city and country values, between coastal metropolises and “flyover” states.

THE Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole says that it’s this long-term shift to the urban, and the electoral majorities that can be amassed there, which explains why the Republican Party goes along with Trump’s paranoid musings about voter fraud (never mind his party’s active policy of voter suppression).

Demographically, these elections are increasingly unwinnable for the GOP (at time of writing, Biden’s national vote count was five million ahead of Trump’s). In O’Toole’s words: “ ... what Trump stumbled on was that the solution to the party’s chronic inability to win a majority of voters in presidential elections was to stop trying and instead to embrace and enforce minority rule ... The logic is not that a permanently minority party may move toward authoritarianism but that it must. Holding power against the wishes of most citizens is an innately despotic act.”

O’Toole gloomily concludes that Trump’s clearly stated strategy for autocracy has been massively endorsed. “The faithful not only witnessed his behaviour, they heard Trump say, repeatedly, that he would not accept the result of the vote. They embraced that authoritarianism with renewed enthusiasm. The assault on democracy now has a genuine, highly engaged, democratic movement behind it.”

Too gloomy, I think. I have a few scraps of research that point to strategies that could begin to break down this polarisation.

In 2019, two US research labs noted that where local papers close down, people’s political choices move to the extremes. “Without trustworthy political information, we fall back on party labels and our partisan identities,” noted the Neiman Lab. “Local newspapers provide a valuable service to democracy by keeping readers’ focus on their communities.” City Lab also notes that when local newsroom numbers contract less candidates run for mayor.

In short, democracy calcifies when localities lose the institutions that give them their sense of identity, purpose and self-understanding.

Biden may eventually prevail because, in the worlds of one of the CNN commentators, he “wanted to remind the working class that the Democrats create policies that serve their interests”.

But the president-elect should also consider legislation that supports these neglected towns and districts to rearticulate their voices and priorities. That means tax breaks for civic media and subsidy for deliberative processes (like citizens’ assemblies).

There’s also a nascent movement around “community wealth-building”, designed and led by Martin Luther King’s old economic advisor Gar Alperovitz (who incidentally inspired the formation of Scotland’s Common Weal).

Trump’s just didn’t deliver on his promised economic nationalism, hardly repatriating any “globalised” jobs to the American rust belt from on high. In this crisis, Biden’s team should realise that they have (as Milton Friedman once said) “many good ideas lying around them”. And one of them is a socio-economic renewal of localities – which is in the best traditions of a “civic” America.

As I’m writing, the smooth CNN anchors are reporting that Pennsylvania’s vote count for the Democrats has definitively surpassed the Republicans. The next few days and weeks will hopefully be full of boring, placid bureaucrats like Al Schmidt, doing their procedural vote-recounting thing. This most startling, exasperating, inspiring nation deserves a few weeks of displaying its dull and efficient qualities.

The planet needs America’s (somewhat) better angels to prevail again.