“There was a dream called Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.”
So spoke the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to his loyal general Maximus Decimus Meridius in the film, Gladiator, when he unsuccessfully tried to recruit Maximus to lead Rome. Instead, his unstable son Commodus took the throne and so ended their golden age.
In much of the United States, in this annus horribilis 2020, a similar sentiment of fragility echoes. The cornerstones of our national foundation are suddenly unstable: the separation of powers, the guarantee of free and fair elections, the freedom from military force in domestic affairs. Even the basics of the political social contract – the responsibility of the federal government to protect its citizens health – are in question.
The United States was to be a shining city on hill. A nation, rooted in exceptionalism, destined to transform the world for the positive. Today, as our country reels from well over 100,000 dead with a disproportionate share from the African-American community, 40 million jobs lost, the murder of George Floyd and mass protests in 140 cities, armed military standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a President intent on dividing the nation for political ends, those ideals feel like trying to remember a dream as one wakes up – abstract, fleeting, dissipating.
Trump is our Commodus. He is unstable, cruel and cares only for himself. Eventually he will leave office, perhaps as soon as January 2021, following the November elections. And when he does leave, his poisonous coattails will cause his political allies to pay a steep price for blind loyalty to power over oath and county.
According to a poll of polls, President Trump’s current approval rating is 43.1%, versus a disapproval rating of 53.3%. This represents about a 3-percentage point deterioration in both approval and disapproval ratings since April. In a recent Monmouth University poll, Biden had an 11 point lead nationally over Trump. Electoral college numbers show a closer race, but in Republican leaning ‘swing states’ – such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Florida – the polls suggest momentum is potentially tipping to Biden.
Futures markets are more decisive. The University of Iowa political futures market (Iowa Electronic Markets), predicts a 53.5% to 47.4% victory for Biden, with a 67% likelihood of a Biden electoral college victory. The IEM also forecasts the Republicans have only a 48.9% probability of holding their Senate majority and a 24.7% chance of re-taking the US House of Representatives in November.
If these trajectories bear out, the Democrats will emerge with a once in a generation opportunity: control of all three levers of power with a country in crisis and more ready for a fundamental overhaul of its unsustainable platform than at any time since the Great Depression. The to-do list will be long, but the major themes are clear.
First, as Abraham Lincoln memorably said, no house divided can stand. We are a collection of disparate states, yes, but we are one nation above all. Historically, crises brought us together, but only when leadership put nation over party, principles over self.
Today, ours is a three-pronged crisis stemming from a pandemic, joblessness and social division. Overcoming today’s crises may be harder than when we faced the Great Depression or fascism, but new leadership can yet bring the country together.
Second, this need not be a partisan issue. As George W. Bush reminded us:
“How do we end systemic racism in our society? The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving…America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity.”
Justice and opportunity are missing today. They must be the agenda pillars for our next President, Congress, governors, legislatures, public officials at all levels of government and, frankly, for ordinary citizens as well.
Third, leadership must articulate the centrality of social justice, broadly defined as a fair and just dynamic between individuals and society. Those ideals reside in the clear and simple language of our shared history—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and the script on the Statue of Liberty. To heal our divisions and to inspire ourselves, unifying leadership need not look any further than the writings of our founders, defenders and immigrants, who risked their lives for liberty and equality. Diversity, equality and inclusion must be central to our national discussion.
Fourth, economic and financial reforms must be introduced to enable equality of opportunity, without stifling aspiration, innovation or the right to pursue happiness. America’s tax regime must be fundamentally reformed to level the playing field between capital and labor, and to halt the calcification of the wealth divide via the injustice of taxing income but not intergeneration transfers of wealth.
Today, the stock market is choosing a Panglossian lens, sending the message all will be fine. Optimism, too, is foundational to the dream that is America, as is the hope that the future will be more prosperous than the present. But for optimism to be sustainably warranted, the economy will need a radical reshaping around middle-class job creation as a realistic opportunity for all. Selective economic freedom is an unsustainable oxymoron. Winner take all, family dynasty, and inequality that stifles opportunity is what our ancestors fled in feudal Europe and Asia. Equality of opportunity is the American dream. The more it is realized, the stronger both country and markets.
Fifth, a united citizenry understands the need for sacrifice in the service of others. It is time to introduce a national service draft that pairs the young with elder mentors and gets Americans working across state, ideological and social lines.
Sixth, as much as we prize individual liberty, we must also recognize that we are social beings, and our actions must reflect our mutual interdependence. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that our individual health depends on the health of society. The absence of an effective national health care system is not only inconsistent with our basic humanity, it poses risks to each of us as individuals. It is also a national imperative. When the next pandemic comes, and it will, how can we remain united if we allow family, friends, colleagues and neighbors to perish for lack of health care? Universal healthcare must be a clear priority for new leadership and it must be effectively implemented.
Finally, soft power must be re-embraced as America’s real strength. The US cannot go it alone. That is a fantasy with only one outcome—make America weaker.
The Bretton Woods institutions should be refashioned, with American support, to represent today’s reality of an interdependent world no longer dictated by the West. In a similar vein, the WHO and the United Nations should be embraced, supported and modernized by the world’s biggest economy. Ditto for key trade alliances. As the most powerful nation on earth, the United States needs transnational institutions that function effectively to help us navigate our place in the world. Our welfare depends on the welfare of others, even those over the horizon.
When Maximus turned down the Emperor’s entreaty, he did so out of conviction that Rome’s senate, not one man, should govern. Tumult followed, with domestic division and cruel oppression of individual rights. But his example ultimately prevailed and Rome enjoyed another 300 years of success, largely driven by soft power.
The US remains a nation of ideals, based on sound, democratic fundamentals. Despair made it vulnerable to the siren calls of false prophets. But losing our way doesn’t mean we are lost forever. With proper leadership and a re-orientation of our priorities, out of our crises the country can re-discover its path and make American great for all.