Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of monthly essays that The Dallas Morning News will publish during the 2020 election cycle. This month, we set the table with the scope of challenges we face. In coming months, we will take a deep dive into our nation’s thorniest public policy issues and potential solutions.
America has never been more politically divided. An energized minority is driving us apart, while most people in the middle are exhausted and tuning out. Missing are any serious plans to address our nation’s biggest challenges. Something needs to change to keep our politics from becoming a playground for partisan extremes, a recess without end.
How to best describe the state of our politics heading into the 2020 election? We could focus on the energized extremes, the heated division, impeachment, Twitter and the prime-time splash. How the very mention of President Donald Trump or take-your-pick of the Democrat candidates risks unleashing a diatribe instead of anything resembling a conversation.
But what if instead we talked about what’s missing? All that’s quiet, overlooked, not flashing across the headlines. What if we focused on the vast majority of people who increasingly find themselves unrepresented and exhausted, wishing our political adolescence would grow up to political adulting, and discouraged that it’s unlikely.
What if we focused on the big problems that are not being solved (or even discussed) because they require compromises, reforms that take longer than a soundbite to explain, and broad and durable coalitions to rally behind solutions.
The reality is that most Americans wish the political joy ride we find ourselves on would stop, and stop now. They’re not watching Fox or MSNBC or following politics on Twitter. They are living their lives. Working, child-rearing, eating, gathering, giving. And if you mention politics, instead of a throaty torrent of personal vendetta, you’ll get an eye roll and exhale and change of subject.
The majority of voters think that neither party governs in an honest or ethical way, according to the Pew Research Center, and that neither party represents “people like me.” Eight in 10 adults (81%) say they are very or somewhat concerned about divisions between Republicans and Democrats, Pew reports, including nearly half (46%) who say they are very concerned about the growing divide.
In the same survey, sizable shares of Republican and Democrat voters wish their parties would reach across the aisle not at some undefined point in the future with some unidentified politician, but right now. Nearly 3 in 5 (58%) Democrats say they wish their 2020 candidate would find common ground with Republicans, even if it means giving up some left-leaning priorities. Nearly half of Republicans (45%) agree.
Important, these are not the views of educated, moderate, on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand elite, who increasingly hold extreme political views themselves. This is what normal people want. This is what voters in the nation’s biggest red state of Texas wish they were being offered.
The majority of Texans find themselves largely disapproving of Trump (with disapproval ratings exceeding approval ones), while disapproving of his impeachment and 2020 challengers even more (with Trump polling far ahead of the leading Democrat contenders). They find themselves exhausted with the choices, and the presidential election year is just beginning.
This raises the question that if most people feel this way, why do we have the choices for 2020 that we have? The answer: energized extremes that are driving the news cycle and political donations. For them, American politics has come to represent something in between a hometown sports team and an orthodox religion, which is to say more addictive and soul-shaping than ever. A 2019 PRRI/Atlantic survey shows that both Republicans and Democrats would be more comfortable with their children marrying people of a different religion than a different political party.
Meanwhile, in the face of the partisan bombardment, most people are unplugging. Seven out of every 10 Americans classify as the “exhausted majority,” according to the renowned Hidden Tribes report. They have started ignoring politics altogether, and it’s not hard to see why. Increasingly it’s getting more difficult to tell what’s going on, with conflicting news reports appearing simultaneously across reputable mainstream outlets. There’s widespread distrust and suspicion of the White House, Congress, the media and most institutions in positions of accountability and information.
And if one does care about what’s going on, one may uncover that the parties are less about a set of coherent ideas or a long-run reform agenda. After all, what the Democrats and Republicans stand for has dramatically transformed in recent years. In the Trump era alone, the Republican Party has gone from free trade, fiscal restraint, Russia is our biggest threat, character counts — to the exact opposite. The Democratic Party has gone from abortion being safe, legal and rare to abortion on demand; for any guise of capitalism and competition to be usurped by big-government, admittedly even socialist solutions; and for the protection of pluralistic diverse points of view to be exchanged for an exclusive religion of secularism.
Politics these days seems more about belonging to a powerful tribe with the potential to dominate on a media platform than coming together to get things done. This threatens the most basic expectation of government regardless of one’s political orientation: solving problems.
Problem-solving is, after all, what most Americans want Washington to do. Consider our nation’s spiraling debt, already at unsustainable levels with no sign of abating. The bills we owe are larger than the size of our entire economy — $22 trillion. By 2024, our interest payments will exceed the entire military budget. It doesn’t require an MBA to know that one cannot keep buying things without paying for them. Americans deserve (and want) an honest and thoughtful plan. Six out of 10 voters think the management of federal debt is on the wrong track, according to recent polling from the Financial Times and Peterson Institute, with the lack of leadership being the driving reason. None of the leading candidates has even pretended to have a plan.
Or take immigration. The last significant immigration reform was more than three decades ago. Ours is a system of winks and nods, of erratic crackdowns and sanctuaries, one that routinely ignores economics and humaneness. Comprehensive immigration reform is widely recognized to require a common sense mix of border security, a pathway to legal status for those here undocumented, and a merit-based immigration system.
That’s what most voters want too — and perhaps nowhere more than here in Texas, where immigration continues to rank as the state’s top concern. Eight in 10 (81%) Americans favor or strongly favor providing immigrants in the U.S. illegally with a path to citizenship, according to a 2019 Gallup poll, while 3 in 4 (75%) favor or strongly favor hiring more border patrol agents. Instead, we have two options: building a wall and leaving the 11 million unauthorized immigrants and Dreamers in limbo or essentially decriminalizing border crossings and disbanding ICE. Both leave crucial challenges unsolved and the majority of the electorate unsatisfied.
Or health care. Premiums have doubled since the Affordable Care Act took effect. More than 28 million Americans are uninsured. The current system unnecessarily ties people to employers and masks nearly all price signals. The majority of Americans thinks the government should be more involved in providing health care coverage, according to 2019 Kaiser polling, but the majority also disapproves of the taxes required for universal health care. Instead, the leading choice in the Democratic field seems to be entirely abolishing all health care insurance in favor of a government system or forcing people who do not have private insurance to retroactively join the public plan come tax filing season. Among Republicans, there continues to be a lack of a cogent plan beyond continuing to gut the signature legislation of the previous president. Again, Americans deserve a solution for bringing the cost of health care down and guaranteeing that an illness does not wreak financial havoc on a family.
Or education. While we debate the merits of making higher education free, the quality of the primary education we already provide continues to erode. According to the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders have declined from 2017, with our scores now below many of our international peers. The lowest performing students have seen no progress in the three decades of tracking such scores. Why aren’t the leading candidates talking about our at-risk students? The main missives on education reform are about teacher pay and curtailing charter schools that rise or fall based on performance.
Or work and wages. The economy is in its longest expansion on record, but a significant share of communities find themselves left behind. Upward mobility has stalled, with 70% of children born poor not making it to the middle class, but research reveals that the drivers are increasingly local, cultural and relational. Thoughtful interventions are needed — not hiking the minimum wage to a level that would throw 3 million Americans out of work, according to the Congressional Budget Office — or continuing to rely on unpaid-for tax cuts for the wealthy to trickle down.
Our nation’s biggest problems cannot be solved by warring extremes, focusing on what will garner votes and energize the base instead of what would actually solve the problem, while everyone else tunes out.
It’s time to talk about these challenges in a way that doesn’t fall neatly into partisan lines and to seek alternative solutions to the polarized extremes. North Texans perhaps unexpectedly have found themselves living in the fastest growing state in the nation and a political battleground for the presidential election for the first time in recent memory. As the state grows, it will have greater influence on the national debate, as well as the ability to implement meaningful reforms on the state level. As such, it’s more important than ever for Texans to bring their unique point of view to bear.
While exhausted, the American electorate is right to hope for better. Whether 2020 results in better problem-solving depends — at least in part — on us asking for more.
Abby McCloskey is an economist and founder of McCloskey Policy LLC, and she has advised multiple presidential campaigns. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.