America after Trump
At some point, hopefully by January, the United States will be run by someone whose avowed goal is not the widening of political division and fawning the fires of culture war. But what happens next? The next President and Congress will face an extraordinarily divided nation. What will it mean to govern under such circumstances?
My belief is that the next Democratic administration — which I hope is the Biden administration — will follow the rule of the supermajority. That is, it should concentrate its legislative and administrative efforts on solutions where majorities, indeed supermajorities of the entire population want stuff that is the Democratic party’s agenda.
The question of what to do first is a tougher question that may first seem. Many Democrats and Republicans see themselves in war for the soul of the country, fighting a zero-sum game in which conceding an inch is a losing proposition. By this logic, the restoration of a Democratic presidency is a return to the unfinished work of the 20th century, a time to continue the historic progress of the United States toward its greater destiny.
But the fact is that, whatever the electoral results, nearly half the country will have voted Republican, and in some States, by overwhelming majorities. When is it worth pushing parts country that want genuinely different things into following a national lead?
There are plenty of issues where a supermajority wants things done. Take, say, the pricing practices of the pharmaceutical industry: it isn’t as if the population of Kentucky thinks there’s something great about charging obscene prices to sick and dying patients. Over 80% of people favor action to reduce prices. Higher taxes for the ultra-wealthy. A restoration of the balance between corporate power and the rights of employees. Paid parental leave. Restoration of Net Neutrality. Serious scrutiny of big tech. All of these enjoy broad supermajority support.
In some ways, avoiding getting drawn into the most divisive and ugly culture wars, some of which are meant to be handled by federalism, will be the challenge. And in fact, imposing stuff on a majority population that doesn’t want it is hard, even when you think it is would be good for them. That is one of the historic lessons of colonialism, or, more recently, of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. We’ve just lived through four years of having right-wing priorities — say, the ban on muslim immigrants — thrust down our throats. It wasn’t pleasant.
The question, of course, is where you draw the line. There are some matters over which there cannot be accommodation or compromise. “Leaving room for local culture” historically meant the tolerance of slavery (and then Jim Crow segregation.) The unfortunate fact is that Federalism’s track record in this country is inglorious, and heavily associated with racial subjugation. So I’m not saying that Democrats should just roll over and ignore the rights of the oppressed in areas that didn’t vote blue.
But what I am saying is that returning some semblance of unity and national purpose will definitely depend on picking the places where national purpose is to be found. In many of the areas I mentioned, the real dynamic is not really left versus right, but actually the People versus Congress. In other words, there are things that everyone wants done, but the institutions of government, most clearly Congress, just won’t act. Those should be the first fights.
All this dovetails with old and cynical theory that the cultural wars are just a distraction from the excesses of capitalism, and the real issues that unite Americans as opposed to divide them. That’s why, as the even older saying goes, the Biden Administration is going to need to know how to pick its battles well.