Most Important Election in a Lifetime? Not Yet

BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON  |  NOV 10, 2020

Election day has come and gone. Well, it has come, but it isn’t gone…yet. The court challenges continue, hopefully for not too much longer. There is evidence of voter fraud and partisan mischief as there has been in just about every presidential campaign in our history, but the resistors have not made a compelling case for widespread fraud the likes of which would change the course of history.

The media has declared Joseph Biden the winner and it appears that presumptuous unofficial coronation will stand. It will be a great relief, a national exhale. Congratulations to him and to Senator Kamala Harris, who broke through so many glass ceilings on her climb to the Vice Presidency she’ll have to watch where she steps.

The 2020 election was touted as the most important election in our lifetime.

The message fell flat. We have heard it too many times, before too many elections. This time candidates and pundits began adding the phrase: “no, this one really is!” I’m not sure whether they were trying to convince their audience or themselves, because it wasn’t.

The election was important, as are most in a democratic Republic. But was this one the most important of a lifetime? History would say no unless you’re 11 and missed the election of our first black president. Common sense and a cold dose of reality say no, too.

The harsh reality is that our nation still faces challenges fundamentally larger than we can expect any president to overcome especially in an era of chronic gridlock, polarization, and governmental dysfunction.

The President-Elect surely knows well the gravity of the situation and the limits of presidential power especially in this kind of climate and circumstances. For example, it was surprising to hear Mr. Biden declare that the voters gave him a mandate, followed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, once again trying to out-Trump Trump, declaring that she and Mr. Biden have a “tremendous mandate.”

There was no discernable mandate on public policy and if there were there would be a recognizable unifying coalition behind it. There was none apparent in the vote results. Mr. Biden had no coattails. President Trump, according to some polling did better on policy questions in the popular vote than Mr. Biden. Speaker Pelosi gave up a lot of valuable ground in the House and in control of the Senate, where a majority has not yet revealed itself, but already the numbers are in contrast to the expectations of the Speaker and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, so much so that Madam Speaker’s Speakership is not a done deal.

The Republican-oriented Winston Group’s post-election research indicated that the number of Republicans in the electorate actually increased as did the percentage of “conservatives” in the voting population for the House elections There was a larger number of voters who call themselves moderates, too. They made up 39 percent of the electorate, compared to 38 for conservatives, leaving the liberal class at 23, according to Dave Winston and Myra Miller, who are very good at what they do.

There do not seem to be signs of transformational change, no reaffirmation of traditional American values, or reawakening of slumbering patriotic spirit, or reconstruction or replacement of the machinery of government that broke down and rusted shut so many years ago.

But you just can’t minimize the restorative powers of Mr. Biden’s win. His victory over Mr. Trump was decisive in its repudiation of personal qualities and the kind of behavior we come to expect from our leaders. Voters also seem to desire a country together again.

Mr. Biden would probably agree, however, that the American presidency is, to put it simply, overrated, suffering from a bad case of over-expectations. As David Von Drehle wrote recently in the Washington Post:…” the presidency has come to occupy too much space in the American psyche.”

It is not a diminishment of Mr. Biden’s worth. It has little to do with him. The presidency has been an open floodgate of exaggeration, misperceptions, misinformation, and overgrown expectations for decades. Mr. Trump’s ballyhooing braggadocio, sharp turns off the paved roads of reality, and mastery of the outrageous has made many of us rethink our addiction to everything presidential and the media’s exploitation of it.

Some of the challenges we face are like the pandemic: immediate and in our face, frightening and overpowering. Others are chronic conditions, daunting and Herculean in their depth and breadth. They will be even more daunting on the day after Mr. Biden’s inauguration, like a bad hangover. There are so many, the country will need a cold shower and some clean overalls for the work ahead.

Consider just four of the many impediments to the fulfillment of our long-ignored American agenda:

  1. The nation remains for the foreseeable future deeply and bitterly divided.
  2. The government for the foreseeable future utterly dysfunctional. It has lost public trust.
  3. Social and political institutions have been rendered inept and irrelevant, some like the media actually harmful. They have lost the public’s trust, too.
  4. There is with all due respect to the next President, a lack of strong, unifying, and visionary leadership up and down the ranks of politics and society.

Divided We Fall

Our nation was deeply divided long before Donald Trump took office, but he has for irreconcilable reasons, made it uglier and much more irrevocable. He also gave strength to the dangerous promotion of false narratives and inflammatory identity politics that were too readily embraced by otherwise intelligent partisans on both sides of the aisle.

I never thought I would hear those on the right or the left justify rioting, looting, physical violence, hatred, intimidation, and murder as legitimate forms of speech, or sanction them as means justified by their ends. It is hard to hear about families who can’t sit together for a meal without a mask over their face and a piece of duct tape over their mouths, harboring idiotic suspicions and stereotypes or people standing in front of their homes with guns in hand, or politicians who embrace lying, belittlement, name-calling, and personal attacks as the new norm of political and social behavior. It is sad to see the abandonment of long-held values and sadder to see children proactively exposed to it all.

Where does it all end? When? “Not since the Civil War has our country been so divided, a feeling exacerbated by campaigns that stressed differences rather than common causes,” wrote Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post.

Influential commercial, political, and social interests (the media, political parties, activists, etc.) are so heavily invested in the perpetuation of warring tribalism, it has become part of the bricks and mortar of our political and social infrastructure. I will not forget the comment of then CBS CEO Les Moonves in 2016: “Donald Trump may not be good for the country, but he’s great for CBS.”

There is as in all things, another way to view our relationship with one another, an incongruity in all of this that offers some hope for reconciliation.

Studies for years have reinforced the notion that Americans are really not as far apart as they seem. As David French wrote in June of last year in National Review:

“It turns out that most Americans have fundamentally mistaken notions about their political opponents, consistently believing that they are substantially more extreme than they really are. For example, Democrats are far less likely to support open borders, far more likely to support private ownership of firearms, and far more friendly to police than Republicans believe they are. Republicans support controlled immigration far more than Democrats believe, and an overwhelming majority believe that racism and sexism still exist in the United States.”

“Previous research has shown that Democrats and Republicans have wildly false notions of the demographic make-up of the opposing party. Democrats think Republicans are older, richer and more Evangelical (and of late more racist) than they really are. Republicans think Democrats are more secular, black, and gay than they really are,” French wrote.

I believe, maybe naively, most Americans are not extremists, radical, or rebellious ideologues. They are not racists. I suspect most Americans are reasonable. They continue to practice the virtues and values that have kept societal behavior well removed from base animal instincts for millennia. They keep their distance from politics as best they can, for good reason. Most Americans work hard, rear families, don’t ask for much, and keep an open mind. They are not the people portrayed in the press.

The Crumbling Infrastructure of Governance

The dysfunction in Congress, like the divisiveness in society, is deeply rooted in rabid partisanship, over-representation of political extremes, arcane rules and procedures, a profound lack of leadership, and long-term disintegration of the character and nobility of the institution. The ideological/partisan axis of power in both houses of Congress leaves the people without much influence, and it leaves the national agenda ripped to shreds lying on the fancy carpet of the House and Senate chambers.

At no time in more than a century was there more in evidence of an American agenda lost than in the last Congress. The 116th Congress, over its two-year life, failed to produce a budget, the individual appropriation bills to run Federal agencies and programs; prevent the national debt from soaring upward; provide resources to fix the nation’s transportation and energy infrastructure; improve health care delivery and financing; increase cybersecurity. Did I mention mitigating historically destructive climatic events like forest fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes? Worst of all, it failed to meet the needs of the victims of the pandemic, those who suffered the illness, and those who suffered the social and economic devastation that followed it into our lives.

Speaker Pelosi seemed to make a firm decision to pursue the obsessive crusade to drum Trump from office before his term ended with one trumped-up investigation after another, and an impeachment proceeding that produced nothing more than wave after wave of more hostility, anger, and polarization. The nation’s critical agenda, including the national eruption over police brutality and social injustice, was left at the curb.

Where are the Leaders?

Will these elections produce the kind of leadership needed to restore our institutions of government? Society? Maybe. But not likely. Eminent playwright and close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt Robert Emmett Sherwood wrote:

“A leader is summoned to the fore by the needs of the time. When the American people feel they are doing all right there is not much thought to the character of the President who sits comfortably in the picture frame. When adversity sets in and problems become too big for individual solutions then people start looking anxiously for guidance, calling for a leader to step out of the picture frame and assert himself (herself) as a vital human need.”

Many would-be leaders won’t or can’t step out of the picture frame today because it is just too costly, to them, to their families, and their allies. It is a painful and destructive process.

Following four years of Mr. Trump’s style of leadership, I suspect many of us may yearn for a leader described by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Our next generation of leaders in both Congress and the Executive must be unifying, empowering, visionary, and worthy of public trust. We need leaders who serve a greater good and have earned our respect the old-fashioned way: getting the job done. With all due respect for Mr. Biden, our political system seldom produces those kinds of leaders. And when it does they too often demur.

We have a similar loss of leadership in our great institutions that are supposed to serve as pillars of our system of governance, education, organized religion, organized labor, free enterprise, and so many others. It will be a significant undertaking to reform our partisan, political and elective processes to find and empower new leadership.

The Most Important Title in American Politics

Finally, one of the greatest challenges of all is the restoration of the citizenry to its entitled role in dictating the direction of the country and ensuring that the rights and privileges of citizenship are secured by the fulfillment of citizen responsibility. You could write a book about it. To complete the thought expressed in Von Drehle’s piece: “President of the United States is a big job for sure…But if you take the idea of self-government at all seriously, the job of a citizen is big and important, too.”

There is a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Justice Felix Frankfurter, and others: “[T]he only title in our democracy superior to that of President [is] the title of citizen.” …Nothing is more important to America than citizenship…”

The people themselves must put an end to divisiveness, reduce racial tensions responsibly, and meet the threats of a global pandemic. Only the citizenry can reduce the excessive influence of partisanship and discredit the negativity. Only the citizenry can restore public trust in government by demanding that public servants earn it.

Only the citizenry can create the climate in which good people, capable people want to enter the lofty ranks of public service and give something back to a country that has given so much to them. Values and personal character still count for something, but sometime over the last decades the country lost sight of them—a costly mistake, that must now be rectified—yet another serving for Mr. Biden’s platter.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.

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