If the Democrats win the presidency in 2020 and at least hold the House — capturing the Senate looks like a harder slog — what should a new administration do?
Polarization won’t go away. The bitterness and hostility fomented by Trump won’t vanish overnight; I don’t believe in a magical return to “normal”. The damage to our democratic institutions will be deep and potentially lasting. Our political system was set up for election officials who believe in rules, norms, and the laws — not a self-serving grifter who revels in smashing all of those.
So what should a new administration do?
There are competing theories here. One is that a new president has about two years to accomplish something big, before the wind up to the next election begins. That points to a partisan agenda, to reward the base of voters who put the new administration in office, draw a sharp contrast with the past, and refocus the country on a different set of priorities.
But there’s another way to think about the next election: that it’s a referendum on democracy. Our system of give-and-take has broken down pretty badly, and policy lurches back and forth between more extreme positions. Participation in democracy is seriously threatened, in part because of Republican efforts to limit voting and in part because civic education has gone by the boards. Too many potential voters don’t see the wisdom in becoming educated, high-information citizens. People glom on to one issue, think about it in the most simplistic terms, and go whole hog for the candidate they think will give them what they want.
The 2020 election could be a referendum on repairing democracy, with a commitment by the winning candidate to begin with something on which there can be bi-partisan support. Infrastructure might be an example. The goal would be not only to accomplish a bill that targets significant funding to repair and upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, airports, internet capacity and the like. The goal would also be to repair the decision-making process, so that we return to an understanding of politics as a process of compromise in a diverse society.
Not sexy, I know. But it might be just what we need.