Few things in American life engender as much cynicism as politics.
It’s difficult to feel good about a system that keeps letting us down. Congress, which once again failed to hammer out a much-needed coronavirus relief deal until the last possible moment, has become an inexhaustible reservoir of infantile theatrics disguised as principled politicking. Some state and local leaders—architects of the rules meant to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus infections—have continuously failed to abide by their own edicts, while others have refused to take any meaningful action at all even as some hospitals are now being forced to transfer patients to other facilities due to staffing and space shortages.
The working class is struggling. Income inequality is rising. The national debt is spiraling out of control. So is student loan debt. Even before the pandemic struck, the percentage of young adults moving back in with their parents had been steadily increasing for the past 20 years, in part because of stagnating wages and the rising costs of housing. All in all, things ain’t looking too good.
Outrage at the institutions responsible for the inexcusably fragile state of our union is to be expected, but we can’t allow that outrage to be wielded as an excuse for inaction. It’s okay to be angry at your political opponents when they say or do things you strongly disapprove of, but it’s not okay to use that anger to relieve your elected leaders of their responsibility to reach across the aisle and strike deals on issues that are too pressing to be ignored.
There is a widespread and growing attitude that compromising on virtually anything now constitutes a victory for the “other side.” When a politician from one party dares to break bread with one of their counterparts from the other party, the outrage ramps up, allegations of “selling out” ensue, and party hardliners who believe in a my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics jump to the task of derailing any further efforts at progress. We don’t have time for that nonsense any longer. Now more than ever, we need both parties to commit to working together to prevent the many years of pain and suffering that will befall this nation if its most critical problems aren’t immediately addressed.
The naysayers will tell you that your rivals are incapable of negotiating in good faith. And sometimes, that assertion will be proven correct. But that’s not a good enough reason to refuse to try. On the contrary, it is extremely selfish to suggest that your party should refrain from making a sincere attempt to deal with the opposition just because you personally are offended by the mere notion of bipartisanship. We’re not in a position to just sit our hands and hope our problems resolve themselves. There’s simply too much at stake.
Take climate change. It’s making our wildfires more intense and destructive. It’s exacerbating air pollution levels in big cities, in turn putting millions of residents at increased risk of developing serious respiratory problems. And it’s threatening to throw ecosystems completely out of balance by fueling a rise in extinction rates among plant and animal species that are ill-equipped to adapt to radical changes in temperature patterns.
We don’t have time to let pride get in the way of taking serious action on climate change. Fortunately, at least some influential Republicans appear to agree, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who in a roundabout way acknowledged last February that America cannot sit on its butt while carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. One of his proposed solutions is to expand nuclear energy production.
In a 2019 piece for Scientific American, former Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman laid out his argument for why America and the world at large should regard nuclear energy as an essential ally in the fight against climate change:
American leadership in nuclear technologies is equally important when it comes to the climate challenge. It has been three years since the Paris Climate Agreement and the world is already falling far short of its collective commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Even if all nations achieved 100 percent of the reductions they pledged in Paris, the world would not come anywhere near the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, much less the 1.5-degree target that scientists say we must achieve if we are, for example, to save the earth’s coral reefs. Projected increases in renewable power and plans to invest in carbon-capture technologies, efficiency measures, reforestation and other steps are important but will not get us there.
That is why the International Energy Agency has concluded that meeting the goal of 2 degrees C will require doubling nuclear power’s contribution to global energy consumption by mid-century. Late last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reached a similar conclusion: in most scenarios consistent with the target of 1.5 degrees C, nuclear energy would have to more than double.
Unfortunately, some progressive activists would rather stay married to a green energy agenda that has almost no chance of materializing than embrace an expansion of nuclear power that could serve as a cost-efficient, low-carbon, transitional energy source while other renewable energy technologies are developed and improved.
Democrats cannot allow those activists to sabotage potential bipartisan deals on this issue. This isn’t the time for purity politics. If Republicans like McCarthy are willing to talk, Democrats should be willing to listen.
On the economic front, infrastructure spending should be near the top of both parties’ lists of priorities heading into the new year. Deficit hawks like Republican Senator Rand Paul are always quick to oppose any stimulus package that adds to the national debt—though they also have a habit of conveniently abandoning that stance when it comes to tax cuts, and that hypocrisy isn’t lost on their critics.
The good news is that Republicans aren’t blind to the economic damage wreaked by the pandemic, as evidenced by the fact that most congressional Republicans voted in favor of the most recent pandemic relief bill. The bill itself is extremely modest, providing a one-time stimulus check of just $600 to qualifying taxpayers. But it does at least indicate an awareness by elected leaders that the voting public will not tolerate idleness in the face of an economic disaster.
A major infrastructure spending bill could go a long way to sparking the kind of recovery Americans are hoping for next year. President Trump himself has long been a proponent of increased infrastructure spending, and at one point earlier this year had been discussing a “big and bold” infrastructure bill with Democratic leaders that would have cost as much as two trillion dollars.
Back in 2016, when Trump was running for his first term, about three-quarters of Americans agreed that we should spend more on infrastructure. Just before Trump was sworn into office, nearly seven in ten Americans rated his promise to spend more on infrastructure as the most important promise they thought he should keep. A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that 87% of voters supported increased federal spending on infrastructure, while a Monmouth University poll from that same year found that 62% of Americans believe “the federal government is not spending enough on transportation infrastructure projects in their local area.”
Infrastructure spending isn’t sexy. It isn’t covered on the front pages of major newspapers or during the opening segments of cable news programs. But it’s very popular, long overdue, and could be just the thing we need to get the country back on the right economic track next year.
Criminal justice reform, on the other hand, is a very sexy topic that has also generated plenty of bipartisan interest over the last few years and could present endless opportunities for compromise in 2021 and beyond.
Last year, President Trump signed the First Step Act into law. It wasn’t what you’d necessarily call a groundbreaking piece of legislation, but it did highlight a marked shift in momentum. The tough-on-crime attitude within the GOP was beginning to soften, a change that has been made all the more obvious by the pardons and commutations that Trump has issued to many nonviolent, reformed ex-offenders, such as Alice Johnson, Crystal Munoz, and Weldon Angelos.
Criminal justice reform is widely viewed as one of several necessary steps towards racial reconciliation in America. And with Republicans seemingly on board for at least some further reforms, the incoming Biden administration needs to strike while the iron is hot.
There are, of course, some issues where compromise is likely impossible. The ideological divide between the left and right has expanded exponentially over the last decade, and it isn’t going to heal anytime soon. But America is in a bad spot right now, and leaders in both parties know it. They should also know that the failure to capitalize on the opportunities for compromise that do come along could cost them heavily at the ballot box in the short term—and possibly even in the long term if the economic fallout from the pandemic is sufficiently severe and persists for many years.
A United States of America is off the table, at least for the foreseeable future. A Cooperative States of America, on the other hand, is both possible and necessary. America has not yet fallen off a cliff, but we’re teetering on its edge. If we don’t act now, with purpose and dedication to resolving the most obvious existential threats facing this nation, it won’t take more than the slightest breeze to push us over that edge once and for all.