WASHINGTON — There is much to mourn about the state of our politics and no point in putting a happy spin on things just because we’re supposed to be optimistic for the new year.
OK, we can celebrate the fact that the election of 2020 offers our citizens a chance to stand up against a dismal and dangerous government and the degradation of our public life. We still have our voices, our votes and the freedom to mobilize for something better.
My purpose, however, is not to offer a polemic against President Trump (we’ll have plenty of time for that). It’s to suggest that what should bother us about the last three years is something we don’t discuss enough: the lost opportunity to grapple with ongoing problems that predated Trump’s rise and helped fuel his ascent. Of course, we would still argue. But we would argue with a purpose and the expectation of getting somewhere.
I am not starry-eyed about bipartisanship and its supposed joys. On the contrary, the current Republican Party’s abject fealty to Trump and its shift far to the right of where it once was mean that promises of a glorious bipartisan future will, for some time, be false. I have little faith in Republican politicians, including many I once thought were serious about governing.
But we cannot give up on the possibility that stirring the embers of conversations taking place beneath the surface of politics might, eventually, lead us toward debates that transcend our current obsession with one man and his domination of our public life. A new dialogue would focus on our shared intuitions about what’s going wrong in our country that should be put right.
Progressives should notice that some conservatives seem ready for new departures from the old Reagan economic consensus. As I’ll be arguing in my forthcoming book, when one side of politics begins talking the other side’s talk, it’s a sign that its old ideas have run out of steam.
Thus has Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offered some tough critiques of contemporary capitalism, including its emphasis on short-term returns to investors and the ways in which it “undervalues American workers’ contribution to production.” Rubio, to state the obvious, is no socialist, but he and conservative thinkers such as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have begun to confront the high costs of inequality and the ways in which wage earners have been shortchanged.
Yuval Levin, editor of the conservative journal National Affairs, invoked his camp’s traditional preoccupations while acknowledging the “real tensions between the needs of families, communities, religion and civil society and the demands of the market economy.”
Levin insisted in a recent issue “these tensions can be mitigated.” This is true — and exactly what progressives propose to do with much stronger family-leave laws to enable parents to do their jobs. Liberals would also expand child care and pre-K programs. Our economic system depends upon the work of single mothers, and of both parents in two-earner households. It does little to accommodate their obligations toward dependent children.
This must change and it would require turning “family values” from a slogan weaponized against LGBTQ people into the real deal. We know how much the upbringing of kids matters to our country’s future. It’s also part of our shared moral sense. If conservatives don’t like progressive efforts to do justice to the urgency of this work, let them offer their own ideas.
The breakdown of civil society and community institutions, particularly in our nation’s most economically battered communities, is a crisis that should engage left, center and right alike. The conservative writer Tim Carney has written eloquently about the problems of our fellow citizens who are “unattached, unconnected, dispossessed.” Indifference to their struggles and to the depletion of social capital is not an option.
And there are stirrings on the right that it is long past time for its partisans to break with climate-change denialism. We should be arguing over what to do, not about whether something needs to be done. “I’m a conservative Republican. Climate change is real,” read the headline on a Politico piece this fall by Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., who has supported a carbon tax. Alas, Rooney is retiring. But others must step into the breach.
Yes, Trump’s defeat and a radical renewal inside the Republican Party are the necessary preconditions for progress. But I refuse to see my wishes for a more reasonable politics and a better form of conservatism as fantasies. Let’s become a nation of problem-solvers again.
E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.