How the 2020 election will define the nation for the next decade
Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, I argued the upcoming 2020 presidential election would be a defining moment in American history. It seemed obvious that it would be a referendum on the last 3 years of Trump’s presidency from the highs of the stock market to the lows of impeachment. But like much of everything else in our society coronavirus has rewritten the context within which the upcoming election must be understood.
Before the pandemic, the list of issues driving the next election seemed endless. Impeachment, election meddling, environmental deregulation, Middle East policy, immigration, healthcare, and infrastructure development were just a few of the topics to be debated between Biden and Trump. But considering the virus’s catastrophic impact on the economy, it’s the exposure of deep divisions between civil liberties and ‘the public good’, and fundamental questions regarding the future of the country, Trump’s leadership during the pandemic will be the only issue on voter’s minds in November.
The problem is most voters will not see coronavirus as the culmination of several key debates in American culture. It will not be a pivotal moment to restructure social programs, political processes, or economic systems. Because the virus’ impact on America is being defined by most Americans through the lens of Trump’s leadership, voting this fall will be a referendum on demagoguery in American politics. Votes will not be cast based on the current and future needs of the country as much as a singular desire to express love or hatred for Donald Trump.
What will be overlooked in the run-up to the election are the fundamental questions that will need to be answered by the next president, whoever he is. Rebuilding a post-coronavirus economy, perhaps during a second outbreak, is only one of the looming tasks for the next president. From being forced to recognize the United States is no longer the leader of the free world to paying for the long-term costs of the current and potential ‘next’ pandemic, the decisions facing the next president (and by association, the American voter) will define the country for decades to come.
“It’s the economy stupid”
Trump’s handling of the economic impact of coronavirus will be the primary consideration for most voters choosing a president in November. The US economy has all but come to a halt with mind-numbing levels of unemployment claims being filed on a weekly basis. The country’s service and entertainment industries have essentially been shut down with devastating ripple effects across local and state economies. The pandemic is also having a steadily increasing impact on the effectiveness of critical infrastructures such as law enforcement, healthcare, and public transportation.
Combined with the $2.5 billion of stimulus funds already earmarked for mitigation of the disaster, the overall costs of coronavirus to this point cannot be calculated, and it is still not over. The issue for Americans to consider when voting this November is that recovery from economic shocks always lasts significantly longer than the shock itself. From the Great Depression to the Mortgage Recession the collapse happened over months, but the recovery took years. And in both instances, the shape and impact of that recovery was defined by presidential leadership.
Even if coronavirus has run its course in America by the end of this year, the political and economic consequences will last for years to come. The pandemic has laid bare long-standing divisions between regions and even individual states that in normal times of national crisis are covered up by sentiments of “rally around the flag” and retribution aimed at an easily identified enemy. And it has reinvigorated historical debates over federalism and the distribution of rights and responsibilities between levels of government in America.
Come November all these issues will be bound up in a simple question that will grow in importance as the pandemic continues and the election gets closer: “how are we going to pay for all of this?” The Congressional Budget Office estimates a quadrupling of the yearly national debt in 2020 to almost $4 trillion, with $2 trillion more added to the debt in 2021, and many state and local governments seeing even larger percentage growth of their debt during the next 2 years. And as the election nears the United States will become increasingly limited in its ability to offer stimulus packages ensuring that as Americans prepare to cast their votes the true long-term impacts of coronavirus will become more apparent.
Perhaps the most important impact of this fall’s presidential election will be the setting of the foundation for the American economy over the next decade. As arguments about paying for the pandemic, improving healthcare, and restarting the economy heat up classic American debates will come to the forefront. We will once again argue over every thread of the social safety net in America. But American voters will also need to confront hard choices about public and social services that to this point have been considered sacred cows. Farm subsidies, Medicare, Medicaid, and even the US military will have to be closely examined for ways in which the United States can begin rebalancing the economy.
International line items that were only barely holding on like the UN, foreign aid, humanitarian assistance, and environmental protection will be faced with a financial crisis that may spell the end of US support for some of these organizations and policies altogether. And all these decisions will be shaped by the next president and their views on equality, justice, responsibility, and leadership. But too many Americans will base their decision on who they like or dislike the most, rather than a critical understanding of whether their choice can lead us through the very tough decisions to come.
The King is dead. Long live the King!
America has been increasingly hesitant to engage in global leadership for more than a decade. The most damaging impact of 9/11 on US foreign-policy was convincing most of America that the only leadership it needed to offer was in finding and killing terrorists. It was certainly the focal point of the Bush Doctrine in the years following 9/11, and the philosophy undermined the Obama administration’s infrequent attempts to promote more benign US leadership in the world. But under Donald Trump, the United States has directly ceded responsibility for global leadership in a variety of issue areas and geographic regions.
US engagement with nuclear weapons proliferation in both Iran and North Korea has declined, and our disdain towards violators of human rights and international law has become muted. The United States has allowed Russia and Iran to gain significant influence in the Middle East leading to new levels of instability in Iraq, Turkey, and Yemen. We have reversed position on economic and environmental treaties, questioned the continued utility of NATO, and further distanced ourselves from Latin America and Africa. Coronavirus did not end America’s role as the leader of the free world. But our response to the pandemic has clearly announced the change to anyone who had not already recognized it.
The United States has always seen foreign-policy through a realist lens although we have not always admitted it. Wilsonian liberalism gave a philosophical purpose and meaning to what we believed was an altruistic ‘leadership of the free world’. We built international systems of trade and law that helped us broadcast that righteousness straight through our victory against the evils of communism in the Cold War. And it was during the post-Cold War era of Bush Sr. and Clinton when the American Century peaked as we considered “peace dividends” and the potential of a “unipolar moment”. We tried to promote international security in Bosnia, nonproliferation in North Korea, and human rights in Sudan. But Somalia quickly convinced us that we were wasting our time trying to help the world. And then 9/11 pushed us even further through the conclusion that not only were we wasting our time, but most of the world did not want our help in the first place.
Ever since then we have stepped out of the room during some of the most important moments in international politics. What we have forgotten is that as much as the door to global leadership was opened by our victory in World War II, it was the liberal ethos enshrined in the Marshall Plan and creation of the United Nations that led to most of the world giving us the mantle. It may be the case that we simply are not able to provide leadership during the pandemic, a fact that itself should lead to questions and consternation. But if we are choosing not to lead the world during the greatest moment of shared threat and concern since World War II then we cannot be surprised if soon we are not even being asked to participate.
It is not just that the United States has failed to take a leadership position during the global pandemic, we created animosity where it could harm the international response. Rather than convening a global committee or similar effort to deal with the global crisis, we have attacked and withdrawn funding from the World Health Organization. Instead of being a primary source for medical equipment, critical health information, or just a comfort to those in need, the United States has placed itself in a group of one. And it is through the US failure to adopt a leadership position that we may ultimately see the rise of China as the new global hegemon.
It will be generations before China is able to directly challenge the US militarily. But it is precisely China’s ability to fulfill nonmilitary sources of leadership during the pandemic that will hasten the acceptance of their increased role and influence in other areas. When China’s provision of medical supplies to countries suffering from coronavirus is considered in the context of their already established “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative, it is not hard to see China coming out of the world crisis with more economic and political influence than they had going in. And as much as the United States has relinquished leadership in dealing with the pandemic, China has shown it is both ready and willing to take advantage of the vacuum.
2020 and beyond
I do not know who is going to win the presidential election in November, but I do know the outcome will be the result of coronavirus’s impact on the United States. More directly, the outcome of the election will be driven by Trump’s leadership during the pandemic right up to election night. The final vote will be decided during the summer by how well he handles a shrinking policy toolkit in relation to stemming the freefall of the US economy. His willingness to shore up or radically reduce social programs as part of a budget reorganization will be increasingly central to fall debates and rallies on both sides. And above all, his temperament and communication at news conferences, briefings, and (dare I say) televised debates, will continue to provide the backdrop against which most Americans view him. Unfortunately, most Americans have already made up their minds on how they view him and thus how they will vote. And the result will be the missed opportunity for a true national dialogue on some of the most important issues to face the country in the last century.
Dr. Darius Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of Political Science at Lincoln University in Missouri. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.