This piece by ACEK director Bruce Abramson was first published at RealClearPolitics.
In 2015, as another presidential election approached, I found myself resigned to choosing between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. I couldn’t imagine a clearer illustration of the contempt the nation’s elites felt for the American people.
The voters expressed their disgust. The only two candidates capable of generating passion were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Say what you will about these men or their policy preferences; they were as far from establishment favorites as can be imagined. The American people returned the elite’s contempt in kind.
In the end, our political parties diverged. In the GOP, the people prevailed, nominating Trump instead of Jeb (or Marco Rubio, or any other incumbent Republican), while alienating large parts of the right-leaning elite. Among the Democrats – where most of today’s elite congregates – the establishment crammed through its preference to the dismay of many progressive voters. The combination produced what I mistakenly called “The Election No One Wants.” Although a clear majority of Americans would have preferred different candidates, Trump excited a sizable minority while a smaller, mostly establishment, minority was equally excited about America’s first female president.
In 2020, that alignment remained. The exciting and polarizing people’s candidate, Trump, carried the GOP banner. The deeply uninspiring establishment choice, Joe Biden, represented the Democrats. As we look ahead to 2024, conventional wisdom seems to view a rematch as the most likely outcome.
It’s thus worth asking: Who wins in Trump vs. Biden 2024? Not which candidate wins; two years and a vast array of variables render all such predictions purely speculative. No, the real question is whose interests would such a choice serve? The interests of the American people? The American establishment? The American future?
I propose that the answer is an emphatic “none of the above.”
In 2016, Trump provided the country with a wake-up call. Sanders might have done the same. These candidates generated passion because they were very different from the bland, corrupt, elitists that voters had been taught to swallow. Using the power of their distinctive personalities and the divergence of their ideological orientations, they provided starkly similar warnings: “America! Look at what’s been done to you! If you want to preserve the future you’ve come to expect, it’s almost too late to act!” In a phrase now popular in certain quarters, they implored Americans to see what time it is.
I believed – and still believe – that we needed to hear that message in 2016. At the time, I thought we’d suffered through 16 years of abysmal leadership. Yet until Trump and Sanders shattered the rules, relatively few Americans seemed comfortable opining that George W. Bush and Barack Obama had both failed as presidents in many ways.
The needs of 2024 will not be those of 2016. With America’s needs having changed, so too will the candidates capable of meeting those needs.
America today is embroiled in a cold civil war – frequently miscast as a war over culture, but more correctly understood as a struggle over values. We disagree about the meaning of critical words, beginning with the all-important concepts of “good” and “evil.”
Sizable swathes of the electorate have moved beyond thinking that the party they oppose has bad ideas that will make us unsafe and poorer. The fear today is that the opposition party seeks to turn America into a country in which we would not want to live. Policy mistakes can be endured with the knowledge that a correction could be as simple as waiting for the next election. Ideological divisions over the meaning of virtue cannot. They are existential.
There are only two paths forward. Either one value set will conquer the other or we will retreat to our separate corners. The former resolution presages the possibility of an actual civil war, the latter a reinvigorated federalism. I far prefer the latter. Much as I may disagree with the “woke” crowd, I’m more than content to let them live their own lives as long as they stay out of mine.
America needs a 2024 election that crystallizes the choice – one in which each major political party would avoid ideologues, symbols, and personalities and nominate candidates boasting records and achievements. The ideal choice would give “red state” and “blue state” governors the opportunity to persuade America of the superiority of the ideas, values, and policies they’ve championed. The GOP might nominate Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, or Greg Abbott; the Democrats Gavin Newsom, JB Pritzker, or Steve Bullock.
Perhaps the nominees could agree – and rally their parties behind the idea – that the election’s winner would carry out Biden’s repeated promise to work as hard in the White House for Americans who didn’t vote for him as for those who did. It was a noble, if unfulfilled, promise that America wants to see become reality. If carried out, it would reassure Americans terrified about what their country might become. Only such a shared recognition could pave the way toward a revitalized American federalism – devolving power away from Washington’s penchant for enforced one-size-fits-all solutions to enable experimentation in multiple state capitals. We might all have less fear about what the country might become if we felt confident that our diverse states represented our diverse values.
America’s history of producing the leaders we need, at the moment we most need them, has been almost providential. That my preferred scenario is a long shot rather than unimaginable is enough to give me hope. Will America get the election it needs? More miraculous things have happened.