American Crossroads

President Trump at Rally

This year, as the nation elects a president, many would tell you this is an especially important one for the future of America. Many scholars at the Maxwell School would tell you that.

We asked eight faculty experts to bring context and historical perspective to this year’s election.

When we vote, what choices are we helping to make? For how long have these choices been challenging the American electorate?

And when, years from now, social scientists look back at 2020, what will they say was decided?

The Party’s Over?

By Grant Reeher

As Republicans and Democrats (and others) head to the polls, it’s less and less clear what party affiliation even means in the current political climate.

Special Series: American Crossroads
Eight faculty experts bring context and historical perspective to this year’s election.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to rethink a lot of issues and policies, the obvious being health care systems and the vulnerability of our economy. But it’s also created an inflection point in our thinking about the appropriate role of government, and the relationship between the public sector and the private sector. You can see that role, and that relationship, being reconsidered and reconfigured in real time.

It’s too soon to know the lasting effect. But I don’t think that, as a nation, we’re going to get on the other side of coronavirus and have the same views about government. Individuals may have the same politics, but as a nation we will shift. I see a swinging of the pendulum.

We were living in the echoes of the Reagan era and its emphasis on minimizing government is likely over. Coronavirus may be a wake-up call that government isn’t always the problem. We may be headed toward a different kind of cooperative relationship between the private sector and the public sector—one that’s viewed as a productive partnership.

In the midst of a presidential election, though, working through these issues is a challenge for both parties. Even before the coronavirus, both Democrats and Republicans were undergoing a soul-searching process, each trying to settle their principles, values, and central messages.

The Democratic Party is trying to decide just how progressive its policies are going to be. It’s a question driven largely by demographics. Today, young people, almost wholesale, declare themselves as Democrats. They have more progressive policy inclinations than a lot of older Democrats, particularly on health care and the environment. And they’re not put off by the term socialism. Older Democrats may not want to move as far to the left, but they share the same deep criticism of our current president and his style of leadership. While this conversation predates our current president, adding President Trump to the mix lights a match to something that already had a lot of gasoline on it, fueling the urgency of this soul-searching process.

Even before the coronavirus, both Democrats and Republicans were undergoing a soul-searching process.

Conversely, Republicans are struggling with the question of how conservative they want to be. We’ve seen that in the House of Representatives, with different factions within the Republican caucus. Short-term, current leaders have been able to push things that both moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party aren’t crazy about, but how far can that go? The party needs to decide whether there’s still room for moderates within its ranks.

And then there’s the factor of President Donald Trump, who is not a typical conservative, and yet he serves, de facto, as the leader of the party. How do Republicans move forward when the party is organized around a specific person rather than a set of core values? What exactly does it mean to be a Trump Republican and is that going to drive their message, going forward, after Trump is gone? These are big questions to be sorted out.

All large-scale democracies are necessarily driven by political parties; the central messages and policy positions they organize themselves around are going to be enormously important for the state of the democratic process. The coronavirus has already made many impacts on the economy and public well-being. But it’s going to undoubtedly shape party debates, as well, in ways we can’t yet predict.

The November election will likely be retrospective; hindsight may prove critical. Voters will undoubtedly judge whether our government responded well enough to this national emergency.

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