This is Civic Way’s third commentary on the 2020 election. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- The 2020 election is over, but the pandemic and our nation’s other societal threats remain
- The election reminded us that, while many state election laws remain flawed, our state and local election officials administer our elections fairly and honestly
- American voters may want divided government, but they also want bipartisan solutions
- Congress must make short-term state and local aid dependent on long-term governmental reform
- Our President and President-Elect must give our nation the transition it needs and deserves
- We must show our leaders how to overcome our differences and prepare for a better future
Like so many elections before, this one produced mixed emotions. Elation and grief. Pride and shame. Relief and anger. Gracious acceptance and concession speeches (with a few notable exceptions). There will be recounts, legal challenges and other drama ahead, but, the 2020 election—and the annoying campaign ads—is over.
Regardless of our partisan leanings, there is something to celebrate. Both parties earned wins. More Americans voted than ever before. Despite a pandemic, cynical voter suppression efforts and unfounded charges, election officials pulled off one of the most impressive elections in our history and did honor to our democracy.
What comes next is less clear. Will the winners treat the losers with respect? Will the losers set aside their anger, accept the results and turn their energies toward the next election? Will our leaders adopt a unifying governing philosophy? Will we find ways to work together to solve the problems that still face us?
The Rear View Mirror
The post-election analyses have begun. If the polls were wrong, to what degree and why? What happened to the projected blue wave? How did Trump get so close? How did Biden win? What happened in Georgia and what might happen there in January? What have we learned thus far?
In many states, electoral systems remain deeply uncompetitive. Registration red tape. Voter suppression tactics. Gerrymandered districts. Mail-in voting barriers. Shuttered polling places. Inexplicable counting laws. And shameful manipulation. Misinformation campaigns. Voter intimidation. Missing ballots at mail processing facilities. If we want higher voter turnout and more competitive elections, we have much to do.
Still, our election processes went surprisingly well. Despite record-breaking early voting and anxieties about mail service, voter fraud, poll worker availability and counting delays, votes were counted and reported efficiently. We learned the outcome within days. The only delays were largely caused by state laws prohibiting early vote processing until Election Day. Where state legislatures enabled localities to process and count early votes before Election Day (e.g., Florida and Minnesota), election results were reported quickly and accurately.
At first glance, the nation seems politically unchanged. Democrats carried urban centers and Republicans carried rural areas. There were small, yet decisive shifts among some swing states (e.g., Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and among some voter groups (e.g., female, senior, suburban and working-class voters). Neither party was clearly repudiated. The Democrats won the White House. The GOP kept the Senate, recovered some House seats and picked up state legislative seats.
Another interpretation of the 2020 election merits consideration. Perhaps, we prefer the compromise that divided government can yield. Perhaps, we want our elected leaders to find common ground and seek practical, bipartisan solutions to our problems.
To illustrate, at the federal level, our nation seems uncomfortable with unified government. The Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, a feat unmatched since the two-party system began. But, since 2001, we have had unified federal government (one party control of the White House and both chambers of Congress) for only four of the ten Congresses. As a result of the 2020 election, the 117th Congress will give us another divided federal government.
At the state level, there appear to be 61 GOP-controlled legislative chambers and 38 Democrat-controlled chambers. However, voters often support progressive initiatives, even in “red” states. For example, in 2020, 60 percent of Florida voters backed a $15 minimum wage, yet only 48 percent supported Joe Biden, a strong backer of the initiative. Voters in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota legalized marijuana, Nebraska voters capped payday loan rates and Mississippi voters replaced the state flag.
The most important take-away, by far, is that while the election is over, our problems did not disappear. Joe Biden has won the Presidency, but little else has changed. The pandemic and other threats persevere.
The Looming Crises
Some thought the pandemic would “magically disappear” after the election. It did not. In fact, it is surging and poses an even more ominous threat for the coming winter months.
Coronavirus caseloads are increasing by over 125,000 per day and deaths are approaching 250,000. New cases are proliferating in many states (e.g., Alaska, Arkansas, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin). Dr. Fauci fears our hospital capacity may soon be overwhelmed, especially in states with limited intensive care beds (e.g., Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah). In Utah, where new daily coronavirus cases are spiking, GOP Governor Herbert announced a two-week emergency and new rules, including mask-wearing.
Pfizer’s successful vaccine trial is welcome news, but only one step. Vaccines must be approved and then distributed to 330 million people at no cost. While the federal government is supposed to coordinate vaccine production and subsidize some initiatives, states are responsible for most other tasks (e.g., set immunization priorities, promote vaccinations, coordinate vaccine delivery, manage storage and recruit vaccinators).
Many questions remain. Which of the eleven COVID-19 vaccines in late-stage trials will earn FDA approval (and for which patient groups)? What patient doses and repeat doses will be required? How can we quickly deliver safe, affordable vaccines to the most people? How (and when) will vaccines be handled and stored (and in what volumes)? How will vaccine usage be tracked and problems reported? What federal funds will be available for state vaccination programs? How will we prepare for future pandemics?
After defeating the coronavirus, we must solve other lingering issues. The economic recovery. Economic inequities. Under-funded public health. Inaccessible, costly health care (even if the Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act). Failing public education systems. Strained law enforcement systems. Housing shortages. A frayed social safety net. Unabated climate change. Decaying infrastructure. Outmoded voting rules.
Our Capacity for Change
There is far less doubt about the perils we face than our ability to surmount those challenges. A democratic republic cannot endure without at least three features—an informed electorate, a levelheaded citizenry and an undisputed commitment to nonviolence. Those characteristics are in doubt.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson
Ignorance has long posed a threat to our republic, but, after decades of exemplary progress, the US can no longer take pride in its education systems. In virtually every field—math, science and civics—our youth are falling behind the students of other nations. Only about one-third of our high school seniors read at or above the level of proficiency. And our knowledge of the most basic civic life matters has plummeted. For example, at least two-thirds of our citizens cannot name all three branches of the federal government.
“One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.” – Bill Moyers
Ignorance is a prelude to impulsive, erratic behavior. In 2018, the comedian John Mulaney used the “horse loose in a hospital” metaphor to describe the President. But, he could have been describing many of us when he added, “No one knows what the horse is going to do next, least of all the horse.”
Ignorance, especially when coupled with other factors like fear, isolation and resentment, can make anyone vulnerable to irrational thinking. Without a sound grasp of the world around us, we can succumb to alternative realities and bizarre conspiracy theories. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we can easily allow ourselves to be cynically manipulated by those with their own political agenda.
“There is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits.” – Richard Hofstadter
Violence is certainly not new to us. Our revolution required a war with England. Manifest destiny involved the brutal removal of American Indians. 1840s-era Congress was a venue for brawling (and worse). After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan routinely lynched Blacks. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, companies inflicted violence on workers. Since WWII, right-wing extremist groups, like the Proud Boys, have advocated violence, and many left-wing extremist groups have followed suit. Since 2001, domestic terrorists have killed more Americans than have Islamic extremists.
This pattern of ignorance, delusion and violence can paralyze an entire nation, even the US. Inflamed by grievances, lies and incendiary rhetoric, millions feel ignored, betrayed and imperiled. Instead of trying to unify us, the parties exploit our differences. Political leaders rebuke the media and treat their peers as enemies, causing more of us to lose faith in government, democracy and America. A growing share of Democrats and Republicans believe the nation would be better off if opposing party members died. In this kind of toxic atmosphere, hoping for progress can seem futile.
What Congress Should Do
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act was sorely needed, but quickly overrun by the pandemic. It included $150 billion for states and large localities. In May, the US House passed a $3 trillion aid package, including $1 trillion in state and local aid, but the GOP resisted.
Without more federal relief, most state and local governments face a grim FY21 and FY22. Revenue losses, layoffs, service cuts and credit downgrades. Fiscal shortfalls through 2022 of about $1 trillion, $434 billion for states, $360 billion for cities and $202 billion for counties. Beyond FY22, some state and local governments face extinction. Unprecedented cuts. Deferred debt service. Unstable pension funds. Insolvency. The federal government’s failure to intervene will harm state and local governments and delay the economic recovery.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed federalism’s weaknesses. Unable to print money or incur deficits, state and local governments lack sufficient resources to weather serious crises without federal aid. In the absence of effective federal leadership, state and local leaders have found their governments too fragmented, poorly coordinated and under-funded to defeat this crisis. Our hodgepodge of 50 states, 90,000 local governments and 5,000 public pension plans is no match for the pandemic, let alone future crises.
With the election behind us, the nation awaits a compromise second Covid-19 stimulus aid package. With the Senate remaining in GOP hands, the prospects of more federal aid for states and localities have diminished. Some Senators still harbor reservations about bailing out state and local governments, immobilized by worries about bureaucratic waste and mismanagement. Some Republicans support more aid (e.g., Louisiana Senator Cassidy cosponsored a bill to provide $500 million to states and localities).
Help is needed now. Congress must enact a compromise stimulus bill before year end, one that will make sweeping reform a condition of short-term aid. The stimulus package should include three components:
- Short-term aid – a generous program to help people, supplement state unemployment systems and restore essential state and local government services (state aid could be limited to Covid-related costs)
- Long-term stability – a federal stimulus system with automatic stabilizers linking direct aid, housing subsidies, small business grants, loan guarantees and repayment plans to economic indicators
- Long-term reform – a bipartisan process for reforming federalism, reorganizing state and local government and restructuring pension funds and other public legacy costs
Coupling aid with reform will not only help forge a compromise between GOP and Democratic politicians, but help build the foundation for transforming federal, state and local government for the challenges ahead.
What the President and President-Elect Should Do
There have been few signs that the Trump administration or its loyalists will gracefully acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory or facilitate the coming transfer of power any time soon. With his disdain for deliberation, impatience with complexities and hunger for attention, the President will likely continue to act rashly, tweeting about election fraud, compelling pointless investigations and dismissing “disloyal” subordinates. Haunted by insecurity, obsessed with conspiracies, twisted by rage, the President will return to his golf course for solace and Sean Hannity for salvation—King Lear with a five-iron and Twitter account.
It may not be reasonable to expect this President to show the grace of John McClain in 2008 when he conceded the Presidency.
However, it is entirely fitting to expect a cooperative presidential transition, something that every President in recent history has given his successor, at least until now. As we have argued in prior commentaries [Executive Transitions and Choosing a President], executive transition programs are prerequisites to successful administrations.
Thus far, despite a clear Biden victory (in popular and electoral votes), the transition has been obstructed. The General Services Administration, the transition authorization agency, has refused to give President-elect Biden and his transition team access to federal transition funds ($9.9 million), federal records and senior officials. This could be the first transition delay since 2000, when the Supreme Court had to resolve a 537-vote dispute in Florida (even then, the Clinton administration launched the transition before the Supreme Court ruling).
While the President has the legal right to challenge election results and demand a fair election, he also has a moral duty to the nation. His continuing refusal to aid the presidential transition will hurt the nation. At the very least, a delayed transition will impede Team Biden’s ability to absorb the operating details of the $4.5 trillion federal government. As echoed by the 9/11 Commission Report, transition delays could compromise the nation’s security and its preparedness for potential terrorist attacks. Such delays also could limit coronavirus planning efforts, including vaccine distribution deliberations, and ultimately cost lives.
What We Should Do
We should press our newly elected leaders to pass a stimulus package and ensure a smooth presidential transition. We have every right to hope that our national leaders will cooperate with one another in the interests of the nation. Ultimately, however, we can only dictate our own conduct. Let each of us then do what we can to:
- Restore humility – listen to and respect one another, strive to understand opposing views, accept our own fallibility and have the strength of character to change views
- Become curious – unplug social media, read reputable information sources, acquaint yourself with opposing sources, ask hard questions and obtain a balanced grasp of politics and government
- Think for ourselves – reject misinformation, resist manipulation, distrust those who offer opinion as fact, think independently, critically and objectively and reclaim our civic freedom
- Embrace community – reject isolation and seclusion, connect with neighbors, join civic, social and leisure organizations, build friendships and replace digital networks with personal networks of trust
- Work together – trade selfishness for empathy, spread care for one another, generously sustain others, find common purpose and patiently (and relentlessly) press for real change
Instead of waiting for national politicians to find common ground, we can show the way. Let’s start by leaving our respective corners. Liberals should watch Fox News and conservatives should watch MSNBC. We all should graciously accept election outcomes when we win and, more importantly, when we lose. By ending the acrimony, we can supplant cynicism with idealism. By working together, we can exchange pessimism for hope.
The early 21st Century has been this generation’s own Gilded Age, an era of economic inequality, political polarization and cultural narcissism. Perhaps, with the departure of our Gilded Age’s most fitting political symbol, the 2020s offer the promise of a new Progressive Era. A moral reawakening. A renewed sense of community. The revitalization of democracy. A genuine opportunity for reform.