What Has 2020 Taught Us about Democracy? (34:00)

What has the election revealed about the country? And what does this say about who Americans really are, what they want and where we are headed?  In this episode, Elaine Kamarck, Founding Director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution; P. J. O’Rourke, bestselling author and H. L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute; and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for National Review and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute discuss: what has 2020 taught us about democracy?


Wolf Blitzer: It is election night in America and a nation in crisis is at a crossroads.

Sallie James: What has the election revealed about the country?

Yamiche Alcindor: This was an election that really put into clear focus how polarized America is.

Eddie Glaude, Jr.: How we think of American politics is much more muddled out in the world than it is in D.C.

Sallie James: And what does this say about who Americans really are?

George Stephanopoulos: We can say that Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., is on track to win the State of Pennsylvania and become the 46th president of the United States.

Sallie James: What they want…

Joe Biden: It is time to put away the harsh rhetoric.

Sallie James: …and where we are headed…

Joe Biden: Let us be the nation that we know we can be.

Sallie James: If Americans can broadly agree on nothing else, we should be able to agree that much of the bitterness and political tribalism that drives our public discussions is unhealthy for our country. In order to debate contentious public policy issues in a respectful and engaging manner without abandoning deeply held principles, the Cato Institute, in collaboration with the Brookings Institution, present Sphere.

I am Sallie James. Joining me for this discussion today are Elaine Kamarck, founding director at the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, P. J. O’Rourke, esteemed author, most recently of A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land, and H. L. Mencken research fellow at the Cato Institute, and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at National Review and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Welcome to Sphere. P. J., in the days following the election you had a piece in The Times of London with a rather fabulous title: “This low-down, dirty, mudslinging, double-dealing mess shows my America is still going strong.” What has this election shown you?

J. O’Rourke: Well, it was actually – yes, I was sort of heartened by you know, America’s energy that we put into this election, most of it misguided, but energetic, nonetheless. And what I – I don’t know, my takeaway from it all was really a sort of thankfulness that when all is said and done that politics is really such a small part of American life. I mean, it’s been hard to remember sometimes during this pandemic of an election season that is still not quite over. And I wish there were a vaccine on the horizon for partisan fever, I admit. But even so, politics is really not all that important in America. I mean, when we fall in love, we don’t hold state primaries to select the person for whom we might feel passion, you know? When we get married, we don’t let the nation elect our spouse, much less the electoral college. I mean, whatever one’s position on legalized abortion, the decision to have children and how many children, it isn’t on the ballot. In fact, if you are Catholic, like the O’Rourkes are, sometimes oops, even the parents don’t get a vote. And every small child is terrifically bipartisan, being both a little Democratic bedwetter and a tiny Republican screaming, “mine!” We wouldn’t allow Joe Biden or Donald Trump to babysit our kids, you know? Joe would forget where he put them, you know? Donald would sell all their toys. Our sons and daughters don’t get good grades by putting out yard signs asking for an A+ on their book report, we don’t find good jobs by begging strangers for contributions to our find a good job campaign fund, although these days with GoFundMe I may be actually all wrong about that. We don’t mow the lawn by having Congress pass a law against grass growing. We don’t garden by standing on a stump imploring tomatoes to get ripe. When it comes to daily life, every vote doesn’t count, thank goodness. What counts is just one vote, our own personal private decision. And I kind of like to give thanks and take hope that that’s how things will always stay in America.

Sallie James: That’s an interesting perspective. Elaine, you’ve been involved in electoral politics for a long time. You were part of the Gore campaign and you worked on policy in the Clinton White House. I suspect you have a different take, therefore, on what we just witnessed. What do you think we should learn from what has happened?

Elaine Kamarck: Well, I think we need to start out by saying P. J. O’Rourke is absolutely right. Most of the time politics really doesn’t matter very much in America. I mean, it’s really kind of beside the point. When I worked on reinventing government, we realized that with the sole exception of people over the age of 65 who are getting Social Security and on Medicare, almost no one ever interacted with the federal government other than to pay taxes. Other than that, there’s absolutely no interaction. The interaction would be a little bit more at state and local governments, but even there quite quite minor. Now, we are at an inflection point, however, here, and this has been a pretty extraordinary election. Put aside Donald Trump’s ravings, okay, because he does rave, he lies, he says things that no American president has ever said and hopefully will never say again. But, underlying this vast split we saw in – that we have seen in American politics, is one fantastic set of facts. And let me just give them to you. In 2020, Joe Biden won the 477 counties in the United States that account for 70% of American economic activity. And Trump won 2,497 counties in the United States that account for just about 29% of economic activity. We are living through a time of a huge split. We have two Americas. We have the America of the high-tech emerging economy that is fueling growth here and in fact around the world, and then we have what some of my colleagues at Brookings have called the left-behind economy. And Donald Trump’s strength is in the left-behind economy. The closest analogy I can find to that is, ironically, 1896, a long time ago. And William Jennings Bryan was representing the left-behind economy in contrast to McKinley, who was the representative of the emerging growing industrialized economy. And that went on for frankly some time, this dramatic split. We have this dramatic split right now. And there’s overlays of racism in it, there’s certainly a lot of misogyny in it, thank you Donald Trump. There’s all these other things that the press likes to focus on. But the fundamental problem is that we have two Americas. We have a prosperous America, and we have a left-behind America. And I think that’s what we saw in this election where we had record turnout. We had turnout that is the biggest turnout since 1900. And people are doing what they do in a democracy. They are looking for where their resentments are, their anger is, they are looking for hope, and they latch onto somebody like Donald Trump who seems to represent their frustration.

Sallie James: Ramesh, you come from a more conversative perspective. What lessons do you think we should take from this last election cycle?

Ramesh Ponnuru: Well, I suppose the one thing we have learned is that nobody knows anything. Or, rather, that’s something we should have relearned from the way things turned out and the surprises that we had in some cases. I think that what – it’s not really fundamentally a question of what we have learned as some lessons that have been reinforced by this election. And what strikes me, and it’s very much dovetailed with a lot of the things that P. J. and Elaine have been saying, is that we have two very, very strong coalitions in American politics and we can make a couple of generalizations about them. One, each of them is large. They are closely matched coalitions. We have had essentially a kind of trench warfare between a progressive and a conservative coalition for about 25 years in American politics now. Each of those coalitions is internally divided and heterogenous and has various tensions. In the Democratic coalition, there are a lot of upper middle-class white suburbanites who used to be Republicans, and still have some conservative fiscal elements, and there are – there is the sort of the rising so-called electorate, younger people, non-whites, more leftwing people. That has been a continuing problem for the Democrats. On the Republican side, I think we are all aware of some of the coalition difficulties that they’ve got. They are very – they’ve got these working-class voters who may have voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but liked Trump, are not quite sure what they think about Republicans other than Trump, but what holds each of these coalitions together is antipathy to the other side. It is not a shared political philosophy. It is not a shared set of policy objectives. It is fear of and hostility to the other side. One last thing that each of these coalitions has in common and that I think accounts for some of the sourness of contemporary politics is that each of them is convinced that it represents the people and that if it suffers any political setbacks it is because of some kind of unfairness. In the case of the Republican coalition, it is because of the deep state, or it is because of the media, or it is because of voter fraud. If it is the progressive side and they suffer a setback it is because the system is unfair, it overweights rural voters, it is vote suppression, it is Russia, and you know, there are some elements of truth in each of these explanations on each of these sides. It fundamentally represents escapes from the fact that we are in fact deeply divided and deeply polarized.

Sallie James: So, against this backdrop of continuing division and polarization that you and Ramesh have identified, Elaine, what effective policies do you think we will actually see?

Elaine Kamarck: Well, you know, one of the most difficult things about this polarization is that we don’t have a lot of effective policies. Okay? I mean, that is one of the – I mean, believe me it is not a surprise that there are left-behind areas in the United States. It is just that nobody knows how to include them in the prosperity of the coasts. So, if you look at where I used to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right, Moderna, who has just come out with this blockbuster vaccine, is situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is an enormous employer. The least educated people they employ are Ivy League bachelor’s degrees in science. That’s the least educated people they employ. A company like that can’t move someplace else, right? It has to be in one of these high-tech centers, whether it’s Cambridge, or Silicon Valley, or the Raleigh-Durham Triangle, et cetera, because they need a certain kind of workforce. So, it’s really hard for us to sort of craft policies. I mean, there are some around the edges, but it is really hard to do that. So, that’s first. The second is that a lot of this is not about policy, and I think Ramesh alluded to this. A lot of this is culture, okay? A lot of this is the feeling that among white, older white, particularly, people, that somehow this new generation of color, and the younger generation is 40% of color, as opposed to baby boomers and older people, that somehow this is not America, that this is not the America they knew, that they are losing something, that people are taking their jobs somehow, whether they are immigrants or whether they are women, that somehow the America they grew up in no longer is. Now, that is something you can’t fix by policy, right? I mean, it’s just too hard to fix by policy. So, I think that’s why we have seen this polarization persist as long as it has and why I think it will persist, if I were to guess, probably another decade before the demographics sort themselves out.

Sallie James: So, Ramesh, do you agree with that, that there’s kind of – there’s culture going on here that is very difficult to fix using policy, or do you think we can get some effective policies out of what we have talked about as a very divided society and polity, if you like?

Ramesh Ponnuru: So, I do think that there is a great degree of cultural conflict that is being revealed by our politics. And I do think some of it has the character that Elaine was discussing, that there is a kind of reaction to demographic change in our county. But I don’t think it’s just that. I’m really struck, over the last five or six years in particular, at the surveys on people’s reactions to a complex of things that one might call political correctness, or cancel culture, or what have you. And it is a sense that you are going to be tarred as a bigot based on sort of innocently not keeping up with extremely rapid changes in linguistic fashion, for example. I mean, you saw it just right after the election with Claire McCaskill, who, with the best will in the world, used the word transsexual, and got stomped on pretty hard by a lot of people to her left. I think people – and not just white people, not just older white people, really resent that kind of thing and that’s one of the other things that is going on. In terms of the policy agenda that can confront this divided America, if you think about this – the last 30 years of American politics, another thing that has just really struck me because it happens to be the period of time that I’ve covered as a journalist, it is very hard to think of a large, sweeping national political initiative that hasn’t backfired on the people who pushed it. Go back to the Clinton healthcare policy, include Bush’s push on Social Security, Obama’s Obamacare, which, you know, at least for six or seven years was a big problem for a lot of Democrats, and I wonder if one of the things that that tells us is that we are more likely to end the cycle of overreach and backlash if we work on small incremental places where we can generate some bipartisan support. That, it seems to me, is where we are likely to practically be able to get anything accomplished in this polarized time anyway.

Sallie James: P. J., you don’t put much stock in politicians. What, if anything, do you think effective government could look like here?

J. O’Rourke: Well, sometimes the best policy is no policy. My policy recommendations would be to do everything that we can to ensure maximum liberty. I think the culture, I mean, as a child of the ‘60s, and here I speak as the official old white male on this panel, you know, the culture war is more amusing to me than it is actually aggravating. I mean, it has its little aggravating aspects, but not only did I experience the 1960s in my own small way, I personally tried to make the 1960s happen. The 1960s were my fault. You think this nation is divided now, remember back then, you know? Let us recall Kent State. Boy, were people mad at each other. And, you know, whatever little tiffs we are having at our house about wokeness around the dinner table, you know, pale by comparison to the screaming and yelling about Vietnam that was going on at my house in the 1960s. Yes, leave people alone. Let’s go back to the McKinley era, when populism was on the left rather than on the right, and when it was rural society versus – William Jennings Bryan represented the values of rural society versus industrialization. It sorted itself out. Nobody would have thought of it at the time. And not only did it sort itself out naturally through market forces, but due to people’s mobility, and American liberty, and the sort of loose fabric of American society, all sorts of what we now call the Rust Belt, all sorts of extremely successful places popped up all over America. A certain corporation may be trapped in the Bay Area or trapped in Cambridge because that’s where the PhDs are, but the real estate prices are absolutely out of sight. One of these days they are going to discover that if they are in Ypsilanti, Michigan, they will have access to all the PhDs from the University of Michigan and about one-tenth the real estate cost. The industrialization started out in the big cities, but the big cities were simply too expensive to support industrialization, and hence the Clevelands, the Daytons, the Akrons, the Youngstowns – I grew up in Toledo, Ohio. All those places – Detroit. All those places erupted, in a good way, economically.

Sallie James: So, let me see if I can sum up what we are all saying here despite the differences and the nuances that we have talked about. Democrats were hoping for, certainly expecting a landslide that did not happen. Republicans lost the presidential race and looked like they were going to hold the Senate, but by a hair, and I think what you all are saying is that there are a lot of encouraging signs that the extremes of both parties you know, have been repudiated, and the crazy extremes are not really going to work for America and, according to P. J., they are really not that crazy compared to some of the times that the country has been through before. So, Ramesh, what is your you know, hope for the future? What is the best-case scenario in your mind?

Ramesh Ponnuru: Well, I’m not hopeful by nature. So, I may not be the right person to ask that question. I guess in that respect I am temperamentally conservative, because I do think it is quite clear that even though both of these coalitions, as I was saying earlier, think of themselves as the authentic voice of the people, the people don’t want them. There are overlapping anti-left and anti-right majorities in this country. And so, I do think in that respect it is quite right to say that the left has been repudiated and a certain kind of conservatism has been repudiated as well, but that doesn’t mean that their adherents are going to get the message. That’s just not something that political activists are inclined to internalize in general, and so, I think that we are kind of – we are going to be in this kind of trench warfare for some time. I mean, the point that P. J. made is absolutely right about the divisions of the late ‘60s and if you think about the amount just of sheer political violence in the United States in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was much, much worse than anything that we have seen recently, and much more routine than we have seen recently, and I think that’s a totally good point, but the one thing that struck me as he was saying that, it was also a time where the political parties were less polarized and voters were less settled in one party or the other, so you could have a huge Democratic landslide in 1964 and then eight years later have a huge Republican landslide. And a lot of the fiercest fights were within the Democratic Party, when you had the hawks and the doves really duking it out physically on the streets of Chicago in 1968. In some ways we are in a better place right now because we don’t have that level of division, but in some ways it is worse because the parties have aligned themselves along the line of division and that creates a huge, huge problem for our political system. A political system that in some ways was originally designed by our founders to encourage deliberation and consensus but wasn’t really designed for very solid, sharply delineated political parties. So, all this is my way of saying I don’t quite right now see the hopeful way out of it.

Sallie James: Elaine, what are you hoping to see as this new administration launches?

Elaine Kamarck: Well, I think a lot of what happens in the future depends on the person who has dominated the last four years, and that is Donald Trump. Trump himself, he is such a demagogue, he is so good at it, and because he was president of the United States, journalists had to report on him, even his lies, even all the bullshit that the guy spews and is still spewing today, it had to be covered because he was the president. Once he is no longer the president the question is will Donald Trump be able to have the hold on the public attention that he has had for the last four years or will that dissipate as he goes off and tries to make a TV network or whatever he does. And I think that’s important because essentially both extremes of the parties got a slap on the wrist from the voters this time around, right? Clearly there were Republicans that didn’t like Donald Trump – he’s gone – and all those House members in swing districts who came out and said socialism, defund the police, all this nonsense, really hurt them, was a real slap on the wrist to the leftwing of the Democratic Party. We should never, ever, ever mention the word socialism again, okay? Or defund the police. It is a nonsense phrase that doesn’t even represent what people want to happen. So, I think both extremes got a slap on the wrist. The question is will they continue to have the hold over the center that they have had for the last several years, okay? And if they do not, then I think I can counter Ramesh’s pessimism with a little optimism. If Trump doesn’t have the hold, it is possible that there are a handful of Republican senators who from time to time will cross over and will in fact enable the Senate to make some bipartisan policy. And if the – Nancy Pelosi, you know, it is difficult having Nancy leave, right, if she leaves after this term. And the reason is she is a mother figure. All right? What does she say to AOC when AOC says, “The Green New Deal?” She kind of says, “Oh yeah, whatever.” Right? She treats her like an errant granddaughter. And AOC knows it. Okay? So, AOC is not having the enormous control within the House caucus that you would think from some of the news media. So, again, it sort of depends on whether or not there are – there’s the ability to constrain the wings of the parties, almost put them back in their boxes. You know, it’s not like we haven’t always had crazy socialists you know, participating in the Democratic Party. But they weren’t front and center. And it’s not like there have always been white supremacists hanging around the Republicans. They haven’t been front and center. So, we have got to get these people back in their cages so to speak and get back to a more normal and a more boring politics.

J. O’Rourke: Absolutely agree. Absolutely agree. I think America’s political parties have made the mistake of forgetting that America doesn’t really have political parties in the European sense. There’s no little card that you carry. You can not be expelled, obviously. You can see on both sides of the aisle you can see that you cannot be expelled from an American political party. As far as joining an American political party, donate so much as a nickel to a candidate on either side and you have joined that party forever. They will never leave you alone. And we don’t have that same sense of a – and our political parties don’t have the clear-cut leadership, they don’t have a coherent ideology that – what we have in America rather than two political parties is two general tendencies. And one general tendency is the idea of the government should fix the problem. And the other tendency is the government is the problem. And, actually, you can hold both thoughts in your head at the same time without cognitive dissonance or driving yourself crazy and becoming neurotic. Anybody who has been down to the Department of Motor Vehicles, we are very thankful for our Departments of Motor Vehicles. We like paved roads, it is nice that we have somebody to decide which side of the road we drive on, we like the stop signs and the yield signs, and we may get annoyed by the speed limit sometimes, but basically it is a good idea that it is there. We like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Government should fix the problem, and they did with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Meanwhile, we are sitting there filling out 50 ages of bumf to register a trash trailer and you know, standing in a line for an hour and a half, and at the same time we are thinking the government is the problem. One visit to the DMV, and you see both sides of the American – so, when the American political parties recognize that they slightly represent one of two general tendencies of American thinking, then there is a tremendous overlap between them and then when things need to get done, things do get done, and sensible arguments are had.

Sallie Jones: Well, right. Well, let’s do a quick lightning round of final thoughts. Ramesh?

Ramesh Ponnuru: Well, I think that the polarization I have been talking about this whole time is self-reinforcing, but it’s not inevitable. Leaders in both parties have made choices that have caused it to accelerate, and they can make different choices. Joe Biden could choose to try to govern from the center, which in some ways I think is his natural inclination, and that could lower the temperature of our politics somewhat. The media could make different choices than they’ve made, or I should say we’ve made, over the last few years in terms of maybe depriving a little oxygen to the most sensationalistic or incendiary voices. Republicans can make different choices too. You know, part of the division that has been created has been based on the Republican approach to voting rights, and I think one thing that we should have seen now based on this high-turnout election is Republicans don’t need to fear high turnout and Democrats don’t need to put all their hopes in it. We can have high-turnout elections where the country is still pretty evenly divided, and in an odd way maybe that ought to be something that we make something positive out of.

Sallie James: Elaine?

Elaine Kamarck: Well, what do I want to happen? I want politics to be boring again. Okay? At the Brookings Institution in the last year, we have had a 300% increase in our readership. And while I would like to think that that is because the world has discovered how brilliant we are, I think it’s actually just – and you’ve probably had the same thing, Ramesh, at AEI – I think what it really is about is that people are tearing their hair out because of politics, and they are suddenly very interested, and that suddenly it has huge consequences for them they think, et cetera. I would like to see our readership drop down, as much as I love those big numbers, I would like to see it dropped down to its normal boring level where people who are interested in the difference between Medicare for all and public options tune into our area debates, and I think that just taking the temperature down, which, frankly, the removal of Donald Trump will do, will do enormously, taking the temperature down is something that I think can begin to restore us to normalcy and to a more balanced political dialogue.

Sallie James: P. J., would you agree with that? What’s your final thought?

J. O’Rourke: I absolutely agree. I am all for boredom in politics. We do our best over at Cato to bore the dickens out of people and I hope we are able to do more of it in the future. I think that I am kind of counting on America’s famous short attention span. I am hoping that in about six months from now people will be going, “Donald who?” Also, let us just take some time, realize that whenever there is a huge disruption in society and the computer revolution is a huge disruption in society, arguably as big or bigger than the industrial revolution, whenever you have this kind of disruption in a society, whether it comes from the moldboard plow, or the introduction of the potato to Central Europe, or whatever it is, it causes lots of trouble and that trouble lasts for a while. Eventually society adjusts to it, and usually these huge changes, invention of the moldboard plow, industrialization, steam engines, and so on, electricity, and even social media, they generally turn out to be net beneficiaries. Society benefits from these things in the long-run. In the short-term, they cause a tremendous amount of bad effects and bad feelings, “dark Satanic Mills,” and we simply have to live through that transitional period and be a little patient.

Sallie James: The purpose of Sphere is to debate and consider deeply contentious issues in a respectful forum. I thank the three of you for doing that here with me today. For more information about Sphere, please go to ProjectSphere.org. Thank you so much for watching.

Elaine Kamarck: Thank you.

Ramesh Ponnuru: Thanks.

P. J. O’Rourke: Thank you, Sallie.