What should the 2020 election be about?

I know that, properly speaking, I should justify a time bomb work like “should.”  I’m not going to.  By the “should” in the title, I mean only that I prefer the non-referendum form myself and I think it is better for the country.  That is what I mean by “should.”

But let’s start with Thomas Edsall’s observation about President Trump.

To date, Trump has shown every intention of turning the election into a referendum on himself, and all the baggage he carries, with no regard for the political survival of fellow Republicans.

That straightforward observation will require a little unpacking and it will need to be done carefully.  There is the question, for instance, of just what baggage he carries.  And since the context is an election in a presidential year, the “fellow Republicans” we are considering are what are called “down-ticket Republicans. [1] And then there is the question of just what a referendum is.  Let’s start with that.

What is a referendum?

A referendum is an issue posed in a yes or no, up or down context.  We have been doing referenda in Oregon since 1902.  I have liked the goals and means of a few. Not many. For referenda, unlike consideration by legislative committees followed by a vote in each chamber, the thing you vote on is not open to amendment.  There is a “take it or leave it” quality to referenda that is hostile to careful thought and argumentation.

referendum 4The Death With Dignity Act is an instance, however, of why it is good to have a referendum as a possibility.  This bill was passed by both houses of the Oregon legislature.  Twice.  In both cases, it was killed in the conference committee—which is called to iron out differences between the House-passed version and the Senate-passed version—by the vigorous opposition of a religious pressure group.  Majorities in both houses favored it; the governor favored it.  And yet it did not become law until the citizens placed it on the ballot themselves and passed it. [2]  That’s why I think there should be a referendum.  It is Plan B.

I said, above, that the take it or leave it aspect of the referendum is why President Trump wants one.  Unkindly, I can say that he would like it because it is all about him.  More usefully, I can say that he thinks it is the only thing thing that will enable him to win.  It will mobilize his base.  It will prevent the presentation of alternative programs by the Democrats.  To see what this would mean, imagine an election in which the Democrats said, “Here’s our healthcare plan.  Where’s yours?” or “Here’s our environmental plan, where’s yours?”

For those two reasons, I can see why President Trump would prefer an election cycle that is all about him.

How to prevent it.

I don’t really have a strategy, but I have a sort of a schematic.  It has three parts: the press, the opposition candidates, and the people. [3]

The Press

The press is going to have to leave the daily tantrums alone.  That’s going to be difficult.  Ordinarily what the president says—or tweets—is “news” but when you strip the tweets of the arrogant language, the consistent cruelty, the racism, there is really only the policy implications left to look at.  We are going to have to learn to do without TRUMP THREATENS NATO ALLIANCE—which is, after all, about the President—and make do with “Administration proposes withdrawal from NATO, while Congress continues to value it.”

That would be a difficult choice for the press to make because writing things that get referendum 2them noticed is part of the business, but headlines like that first one also get the President noticed.  It is also likely that some news outlets are going to continue to feature the “daily outrage” and they may gain an advantage over media who do not.  Of course, just how much advantage they gain will depend on whether the readership rewards them or not and the readership is us.  If, as is customary, we deplore media oriented to sex and violence and consume those media disproportionately, the media will respond to what we do, rather than to what we say we do.  So we would have to consume, disproportionately, media that emphasize the policy dimension of the President’s remarks.

Consider this.  Trump is a monster.  Trump is a bigot.  Trump is a racist.  Trump is a predator.  Trump is childish.  All those headlines could very well have been crafted by the “Re-Elect President Trump” campaign.  They are all about him.  They make the election of 2020 a referendum on him, which, as Edsall speculates, is what he wants.

The Opposition Candidates

This will be harder.  It is one thing to build your campaign for Congress on your policy proposals.  Here’s my plan for stabilizing our immigration policy.  Here’s my plan for making healthcare available to everyone.  It is another to refuse to respond to attacks on your person.  Charges are made and people expect you to respond to them and, frankly, you do have to respond to them.  But a response will never be enough, you candidates will have to say out loud that these attacks on me will not put before you, the voters, the choices you face.  We need to get back to what kind of country you want to live in.

That’s the hard case.  The easier case is that Democrats need to run on what they oppose—gridlock, neglect, environmental disaster—and on what they propose to put in their place.  The alternative is running against Trump.  The common “I will fight for you” can so easily be turned to “I will fight against HIM,” which is, again, Trump-centered.  The essential case is this: “I am not going to campaign against the President.  I am going to campaign for policies that will benefit us all.” [4]

The People

We, as the audience in the campaign, are going to have to respond to policy-centered messages more than to person-centered messages. Here, for instance, is a person-centered message that says it is about “hate.”  This feeds the referendum strategy of the President. That doesn’t seem all that likely, given that we are wired for tribalism rather than for principle.  Maybe it would be enough is we emphasized our loyalty to our tribe.  

Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 7.07.11 AM.pngThis could be “the tribe I belong to” as is the case for the white working class generally. [5]  It could be “the tribe I sponsor,” as is the case for many well-off Democrats who emphasize the rights of any one of a dozen marginalized groups. Tribe could be my political party.  Anything that would allow us to appear as political actors on behalf of our group (that’s the tribalism part) and the principles of our group.  I know that runs the risk of becoming unfocused, but none of those emphases play into the “referendum on Trump” focus, which, as Edsall says correctly, is the President’s best chance of re-election.

Of course, I don’t want the President to be re-elected, but on beyond that, referenda are a really terrible way to have a public debate and make an informed choice—and those matter a great deal to me.

[1]  Candidates who are not at the top of the ballot are affected a good deal by the races that are above them.  So, “down-ticket” Republicans.

[2]  Twice.  I like the symmetry of that.  Opponents brought it back in the next election cycle to get the voters to undo their earlier choice and we passed it by an even larger majority the second time.

[3]  Ordinarily, we say “the voters” at that point, but the reactions of the people take a lot of important forms beyond voting.

[4]  The way I am representing this kind of campaign makes it sound policy-centered.  I know that doesn’t work.  It must be centered on the narrative of political solidarity, inclusion, and common success.  It’s the story that works.  I just can’t afford that detour here.

[5]See Joan Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.