I vividly remember the morning after the 2016 elections. As I took the train to school, I saw people’s faces buried in newspapers, soaking in the grim headlines. At school, a weird silence took over the hallways and classrooms. I saw many people crying, hugging each other for comfort and grappling with disbelief in the fact that Donald Trump had actually won the presidential election.
With the FiveThirtyEight forecast projecting a 71.4% chance that Hillary Clinton would win, election night four years ago was the first of many surprises under the Trump presidency that our nation has since dealt with. We have borne witness to a variety of decisions that have actively damaged our democratic institutions: children separated from their parents and put into cages, white supremacy bolstered, political allies and advisers pardoned — the list is long. As these actions took place, the silence I witnessed in school slowly grew into a force fueling mass demonstrations across the nation. Central to each of those protests and marches: the will to preserve the tenets of American democracy.
Fittingly, Joe Biden’s campaign dubbed the 2020 presidential election as the “battle for the soul of the nation.” This election, more than anything, was about protecting, preserving and strengthening the moral consciousness and character of the United States — which, under a Trump presidency, had become more divided. And that very fact was represented in the broad coalition-building Biden had demonstrated throughout his campaign. Though running as a proud centrist, the former vice president put together a special task force with Sen. Bernie Sanders — the Biden-Sanders unity task force — to craft progressive policies on issues such as climate change and criminal justice reform as an effort to appeal to the far-left faction of the party. At the same time, he welcomed support from Republicans by winning endorsements from the likes of Colin Powell, the secretary of state under George W. Bush’s administration; John Kasich, former governor of Ohio; and the McCain family, among many others.
While election night turned into an election week, Biden’s victory is both reassuring and remarkable. In many states, victories were narrow, but the Electoral College total signifies a clear rebuke of Trumpism at the national level. More locally, I witnessed claps, honks and celebrations in New York City from outside my window. The celebration in cities across the United States is a stark contrast to these same environments four years ago. Though the election solidifies a more certain future for American democracy, the “battle for the soul of the nation” will continue for these next four years.
The United States is fragile. While for many this election came down to a simple choice, more than 71 million people still supported Trump. Republican elected officials and party leaders are still supporting Trump’s far-fetched and unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. While our nation has overcome a key challenge, these next four years should have one key goal: restoring trust. We cannot afford to lose sight of this.
While our nation has overcome a key challenge, these next four years should have one key goal: restoring trust.
Trump, running as a Washington outsider in 2016, capitalized on the polarized political climate in Capitol Hill. He was able to take advantage of the ever-declining trust in public institutions, resulting from policies such as the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. The ACA was jammed through under former president Barack Obama’s administration; lacking Republican support, the signature legislation has been underscored by the partisan divide. This is not to say that the plan has been a policy failure; it has greatly expanded coverage and saved numerous lives, even though there have been extreme hikes in premiums and marginal reductions to cost. Rather, it has been a political failure. At the time of the 2016 elections, a majority of Americans disliked the ACA. Furthermore, 29% of Americans said the ACA had hurt them and their family. These statistics represent the political cost of partisanship.
As an effort to pander to those distraught by constant legislative gridlocks, Trump promised to reverse the increasing amount of political ineffectuality. Nothing has quite changed in that respect, and arguably, we have only moved further from that goal. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Trumpism was built on the very shoulders of failed progressive policies lacking national support alongside a polarized political climate, and it hence fed into largely skewed public impressions about both the state of our nation and the Democratic Party.
We have grown to be wary of those that disagree with us. Even on a campus that has been a beacon for freedom of speech, we often find ourselves at odds with that very value when it comes to engaging with our conservative peers. We seem to overlook that disagreements, underlying both the campus and national polarization, strengthen democracy, not tear it apart. We must forgo the notion that there is only one way our nation can improve — our way — because even split along party lines, that leaves us with an evenly fractured union.
Even on a campus that has been a beacon for freedom of speech, we often find ourselves at odds with that very value when it comes to engaging with our conservative peers.
A Biden administration must seek to resolve the distrust, both among citizens with differing beliefs and among citizens with regards to our public institutions. Coalition building — a phenomenal asset to the campaign — will be the cornerstone of continued success. Instead of political infighting between the factions of the Democratic Party, as we have already begun seeing, it would serve them best to build upon the success of the task force to find more avenues of collaboration and compromise, even with their Republican counterparts. The former vice president should take a lesson from the very administration in which he previously served with respect to Cabinet selections. Despite Obama’s unequivocal critique of his predecessors, he asked Robert Gates, George W. Bush’s defense secretary, to continue serving. Having an ideologically diverse Cabinet will restore trust for both those who voted for Trump and those who opted to “settle” for Biden.
At the same time, it will also set the tone for bipartisan legislative change. For a successful administration, Biden and his fellow Democrats must seek to avoid partisan gridlock. We must not fall victim to a cyclical path that leaves ammunition for inefficient government populists such as Trump. With this, I am in no way suggesting four years of inaction.
The United States remains in the midst of a pandemic. With COVID-19 cases once again surging, this crisis presents an opportunity for America to unite. While Trump used the belief in science to continue his “us vs. them” rhetoric, Biden will have the opportunity to unite the nation through common lived experiences. People, in both cities and suburbs, are hurting and need the government to support them.
In the past, crises have presented tremendous opportunities for bipartisanship. As a response to the growing racial tensions, there was a bipartisan effort to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to put an end to workplace discrimination and segregation. When the U.S. economy was facing a recession in 1990, former president George H.W. Bush put aside the core campaign promise he had made when accepting his party’s nomination two years prior: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” With broad Democratic support, he adopted a budget bill that increased taxes and lowered the deficit. Even at the start of this year’s pandemic, we saw compromise in the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which later dissipated as the election narrowed in. The moment right now calls for us coming together, and with his vast Senate experience, Biden is poised to bring us there. There are two avenues of responses: progressive pushes such as those from former president Franklin D. Roosevelt or unifying both sides of the aisle like George H.W. Bush. Though both are means for caring about the nation, Biden should opt for the latter to promote trust in government, especially with those who did not vote for him.
We must not fall victim to a cyclical path that leaves ammunition for inefficient government populists such as Trump.
Change can be accomplished with division. There are certainly reforms that can bring together both sides of the aisle. One of the most important that comes to mind is curbing prescription prices. At the same time, far-left leaning progressives should look toward incremental reform. Instead of being dead set on universal health care, it will be more beneficial to focus on issues such as surprise billings, telemedicine expansion and even fixing current loopholes in the ACA. Such changes are far more viable and will have more impact without jeopardizing political stability. We have grown to believe that the other party is counter to all our values and beliefs, but it is my hope that the next four years can change how we view the two-party system. (But perhaps this is too naive and optimistic of me.)
A return to stability, which I believe is the most important, will only take place if Trumpism can actively be rooted out. If Trumpism was an antidote to the dissolving faith in government, it is only logical to believe that it will be rooted out once we successfully restore trust — faith that unites. While Biden has been handed a mandate, the Democratic Party did not perform at par with expectations in down-ballot races. The results should be taken as a sign of support for the doctrine of Trump. If we do not learn from our previous mistakes, we are likely to not only lose the White House but return to an even more radical Republican Party (think Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Matt Gaetz). The Biden administration and the next four years will carry a lot of weight throughout American history. Certainly every presidency has its impact, but very few carry the burden to shape the future of our nation and its politics like this one.
The United States is fragile. The “battle for the soul” of our nation will continue throughout these next four years, and I urge you to keep that in mind.
Contact Vishwaa Sofat at [email protected].