Fog envelopes the U.S. Capitol building in the early morning...

Fog envelopes the U.S. Capitol building in the early morning hours on Nov. 4, 2022 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images/Samuel Corum

The best, most optimistic thing that can be said about this year's midterm elections is that the guardrails seem to be holding.

That's more important than the identity of individual winners and losers or the color of the wave or ripple.

In the short term, of course, those things do matter. Good or bad can happen on an individual's watch. But for America as a country, a concept, a symbol of democracy, its guardrails holding is a really big deal, especially after they were strained to the breaking point and sometimes beyond by the last election and during the previous administration. They might be patched with spit and chewing gum, but at least they're not fraying further.

There was no assurance that would be the case earlier in this campaign. Hundreds of 2020 election deniers were on ballots across the country, cut from the same Trumpian mold, seeking the same Trumpian blessing, shouting about the steal and the supposed threat that it — not them — posed to our democracy.

Many of them did win, typically in staunchly red districts or states, and they might try to do damage in those places. But they were largely not successful in blue or purple places. And when they did lose, they didn't cry foul. They didn't scream that it was stolen from them. They didn't file lawsuits. They accepted their fate, like thousands of losers before them whose behavior in those moments created the norms that governed us for more than two centuries.

There still is a possibility that Kari Lake, the election-denying Republican candidate for Arizona governor locked in a taut battle with Democrat Katie Hobbs, will cry foul if she loses. Lake has been seeing undefined conspiracies in the careful slowness of the count, and has been using rather routine technical glitches on Election Day to question the integrity of the process and those counting, especially in Republican-run Maricopa County, despite having her representatives in the counting rooms.

But if Lake does attempt some instigation, how many will follow her? In an election tinged with the whiff of desire for an end to crazy and a return to normal, how many would follow? The pushback to Lake's insinuations from GOP elections officials in Maricopa has been strong. And there have been no 2020-style hordes of enraged protesters, some with guns, outside the counting places.

And in Georgia, where the other side warned of voter suppression, a turnout record was set.

Small flames can ignite conflagrations, yes. But it seems more people now are understanding that counting votes properly takes time and that monitoring is in place and not uncovering any big problems. It seems more people grasp more of the nuance of which kind of vote is counted early and which late and which method is typically embraced by people who vote like them. And, crucially, it seems that more people have learned the lesson of 2020, that margins can change as votes are counted and there is nothing nefarious about that.

That's a lot of seeming, but seeming is better than seeming not, and it could crystallize as acceptance if these processes continue to be conducted openly.

It also could be that two years after the propagation of the Big Lie by former President Donald Trump, sober observers have noted that dozens of law suits were filed protesting the vote and not one made a successful case for the steal. In recent days, the roster of Republicans saying it's time to move on from Trump has mushroomed.

Elections occur on a continuum. One flows out of another and leads to yet another. Judging a moment is tempting but perilous. Time often reveals deeper truths.

Note where we are now. Be pleased but not complacent. There are many steps to go.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.