I’d like to take a break from the ongoing Trump implosion and refocus for a minute on the fundamental forces shaping this election. Although the closing arguments of the campaign will be dominated by questions of basic human decency, we should remember that the primary political driver since early last year has been a cry for change. Dissatisfaction and disgust with politics as usual fueled the unexpected rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, this cycle’s two defining figures. Even if the electorate elevates a consummate insider to the presidency, the desire to shake up the political process will assert itself strongly after her inauguration. How she addresses it will determine the fate of the governing majority we elect on November 8 and quite possibly the fate of the nation.
The requirements of those crying out for change would be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances, but the destructive quality of the presidential campaign will leave the winner with the political equivalent of the policy apocalypse that Barack Obama inherited in 2008. With Donald Trump dragging the country through a cesspool of conspiracy theories which threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the election, the next administration is going to lack buy-in from a large chunk of the country. Angry voters from across the political spectrum will make varied and incompatible demands. Left-leaning populists identify different problems and call for different solutions than right-leaning populists. There are racial, cultural and economic layers to the change mantra, all of which need attention. The next administration will inherit all of this.
If Democrats win, they would be wise to remember Bernie Sanders’ core critique of the economic and political process as favoring the interests of the super-rich, and Sanders’ followers would be advised to keep the pressure on a Democratic administration to do something about it. For all the multi-layered problems marking this political moment, democracy is simply more challenging to maintain during times of scarcity and decline. Tackling four decades of rising inequality would go a long way toward addressing some of the underlying anger and angst threatening to push the political system over the edge.
This means taking steps to change how the game is played, a heavy lift for any administration and an impossible objective without skillful leadership from the new president and effective influence from outside groups. It means tackling problems that many Americans have come to believe government is unwilling or unable to address, starting with meaningful campaign finance reform to elevate the political power of individual voters over those who can afford to spend at will to influence elections, and continuing with policies that unwind a Washington economic consensus benefitting those who can afford lobbyists. On these matters we have seen genuine bipartisanship, as both major parties have sided with elites. It’s a system defined by access, not ideology, and one enduring lesson of this campaign should be that it is sustained at great peril to those who continue to enable it. One can only hope that the unnerving nature of the campaign will be disruptive enough to the settled ways of Washington to create an opening for what thus far has been impossible to address through normal political channels.
Democrats will be entitled to a moment of relief should today’s electoral forecasts hold and Donald Trump is dispatched to the world of shady business and interpersonal dealings, but they will be fooling themselves if they read even a lopsided victory as license to return to business as usual like Wall Street did after the markets recovered from the Great Recession. Worse, they would be consigning the country to the allure of a more skillful demagogue several years down the road.