This article is part of the Review’s series on the 2020 US elections.

If the most powerful position on earth is to be filled either by one of the worst humans the gene pool has ever devised or by one of the most mediocre, you’d think the choice would be clear. But apparently it is not, and the world waits in anguished anticipation for the votes of US citizens to be cast and tallied.

Unfortunately, the notion of “choice” is pretty illusory these days, owing not only to the undesirability of the candidates but also, obviously, to the politicized consolidation of news outlets, the unremitting distortion of facts, the undermining of legitimate sources of information, the systematic degradation of education, the disenfranchisement of vast numbers of voters, the gradual jimmying of the courts, and the preposterous constitutional provision of the Electoral College.

Judging by the hundreds of decreasingly inventive e-mails I receive every day dunning me for contributions to one candidate or another, the choice is to be determined by money. And if that were truly the case, why couldn’t we just stack up the money contributed to each candidate and measure which stack is highest? But actually, all that money so frenziedly amassed is amassed only for the sake of influencing the small proportion of potential voters designated “undecided,” said to be the people who will determine the outcome of the election.

On the other hand, you could just as well say that the people who will determine the outcome of the election are in fact the great majority of voters, who are unwaveringly “decided.” And there are various grounds on which one might be “decided.” Some of them are local or personal—for example that, thanks to the regulations or deregulations of the current administration, you’ve made a few hundred millions of dollars, and you’d like to make a few more; or you believe that undesirable people are marching toward your serene neighborhood to bring down its tone; or that haughty and censorious people are scheming to take away your weapons and independence.

Other grounds for being “decided” are perhaps less local or personal. Many of us, even those who for the past seven months have experienced little more than the walls around us, see—on our screens and in our minds’ eyes, all day long and in our dreams—visions of roaring flames and rising waters, troops in riot gear, armed, self-appointed “militias,” vast encampments of homeless families, populations of migrants harried here and there, heartbroken children, heartbroken parents, graphs of the stock market rocketing up into triumphal fireworks…

No wonder danger looms large in our minds! And as everyone has been saying for years now, as if it were always a shock, our country is polarized! True, but there’s one thing we have solidly in common: we nearly all feel threatened.

Clearly many of us feel threatened for very good reason. But others whose good fortune or comfort is secure feel equally threatened. And that’s very useful for anyone who wants to hang on to power, because people who feel threatened are easy to manipulate. It’s a tidy, time-tested formula: the advantaged or powerful feeling threatened by the very people to whom they pose a threat—Nazis feeling threatened by Jews, for example, or entrenched citizens feeling threatened by immigrants, or white supremacists feeling threatened by people of color.

So, here we are, in this unspeakable mess—paralyzed, to boot, by microscopic entities that have been allowed to stream nearly unimpeded through the population—and we know very well that things can get worse. But if things could only get worse, we would all have been dead millennia ago.

This election is undeniably nerve-racking, dreary, humiliating, and terrifying, but insofar as we strenuously exercise our rights—now, specifically, in other words, by voting, and helping to make it possible for other people to vote—it’s not one hundred percent a charade: Mediocrity, in its amorphousness, is malleable, whereas the Worst is rock hard. The days are streaming out behind us as we tremble. We can’t retrace them, and even if we could they wouldn’t lead anywhere very desirable. This election isn’t an end—it’s just a hurdle; what will happen in its wake is anybody’s guess—but that’s what makes it critical: Which avenues of justice will we be able to pry open or widen, and which will be shut down irremediably in our paths?