The year 2020 laid bare a concerning disconnect between elected officials and the American people.
Democrats declared the election was a day of reckoning for Republicans as President Donald Trump was defeated.
Republicans, in turn, declared the election was a day of reckoning for Democrats who lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to shift the balance of power in state and local elections despite unprecedented spending.
The real reckoning will come when both parties understand how far they’ve drifted from the American people and then begin to lead with humility.
Both parties have a few things that need to be reckoned with if they want to connect to and reflect the mind of the American people. Any such reckoning must begin with a clear understanding of where the political parties reside and where the people of the country truly are.
Where we are now
Before a critical debate in the United States Congress, Daniel Webster said, “Mr. President, when the mariner has been tossed about for many days in thick weather on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun to take his latitude and ascertain where he is in relation to his desired course. Let us imitate this prudence and before we float on the waves of this debate refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we now are.”
You cannot chart a course to where you want to go unless you understand where you actually are. So, where are “we the people” and what do the political parties need to reconcile?
Republicans must reckon with the fact that Joe Biden will be the president of the United States of America on Jan. 20. All theories and lawsuits aside, President-elect Biden won for a reason. Recognizing the reason, or reasons, is the beginning of restoring reason to the Republican Party.
Democrats have to reckon with the reality that there are more than 70 million Americans who voted for President Trump. They must also understand how Mr. Trump replaced former President Barack Obama as the most admired man in America (President Trump and Michelle Obama finished as most admired man and woman in 2020 according to Gallup polling).
The far left of the Democratic Party must understand that socialism won’t win in America. They should also open their eyes to the irony of capitalism working within their own ranks. The website of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sells sweatshirts that say, “Tax the rich” for $58 a pop. T-shirts emblazoned with “Cancel student debt” sell for $27 — plus shipping and handling of course.
Government has a role
The far right of the Republican Party must reckon with the fact that government does have an important role to play in society. They should actually reread the words of their oft-quoted champion, President Abraham Lincoln, who declared that the role of government was, “to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
The Democratic Party must also reckon with the reality that the private sector is better than government at some things. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla chose to not take government money for research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine. He made a $2 billion gamble, saying, “I believe in the power of science. I believe in the power of the private sector. And I believe in the miracles that science and the private sector can do for mankind.” His gamble paid off to the benefit of millions of people.
Republicans must reckon with fact that they are still perceived as an exclusive party of elite country-clubbers looking out for their rich friends. The party should start every discussion about entitlement reform with a declaration that they will end the era of out-of-control corporate welfare.
Both parties must reckon with the idea that political populism is an easy mantle to claim and that real governing is a difficult thing to do.
The tea party populism of 2009 used the angst around Obamacare as the piston to drive a white-hot engine of change against the “them” of President Obama and congressional Democrats. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement similarly channeled frustration about “them” — the top 1% of earners, millionaires and corporate executives — as the populist target for people angry about the economy.
President Donald Trump rode a populist wave into office in 2016. Far-left liberals like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad,” along with democratic socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders, have also amassed populist political influence over the past four years.
The populist message is not hard for any candidate to claim because the American people do want to be led and they want to know that their leader has their back and is fighting for them.
Americans across the political spectrum have become increasingly convinced that the system is rigged. They have watched their political leaders, along with lobbyists, wealthy donors and well-connected elites in Washington, climb the ladder of success and then pull it up behind them. Citizens have also felt the oppressive and heavy hand of government agencies that have targeted, taxed and tested their trust in the institutions of the republic.
Both sides need to reckon that populism only has to incite the riot — it doesn’t have to govern and it never needs to truly lead.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen wrote of the coming reckoning, saying, “Many in official Washington are hoping that the Biden presidency will signal a return to the politics as usual that existed before President Trump took office. However, polling I conducted during the 2020 election found that only a third of voters want a return to establishment politics of either the Republican or Democratic variety.”
He further commented in a recent Deseret.com column that the next leaders for America, “will emerge to address the issues and challenges of the 21st century in a way that gives voice to the hopes and aspirations of the American people.”
To give voice to the hopes and aspirations of the American people you have to know where they are. In other words, politicians are going to have to reckon with the reality that they have become completely disconnected from the citizens of the nation and embrace the notion that they need to know where the people are if they are ever going to lead them. Lady Margaret Thatcher once mocked the political elite of her day when she described them as saying, “Show me where my people are going so I might go there and lead them!”
Reckoning with the deep disconnect between politicians, political parties and the people of this nation will require hard work, heavy lifting and real humility — the quality that makes space for the kind of creativity, connection and cooperation our citizens want and need from their leaders. Whoever does that first and best will lead “we the people” for the next decade.