The ongoing presidential election is proving to be contentious. COVID-19 is affecting the election’s mechanics, and so far, over 51 million people have already voted. Most polling shows former Vice President Joe Biden with a substantial lead over President Donald Trump, though many observers seem reluctant to underestimate Trump’s chances like they did in 2016.
November’s outcome will have long-standing political consequences regardless of the results. If President Trump wins, he will likely cement his hold on the Republican Party. I would be surprised if the left wing of the Democratic Party didn’t point to Biden’s moderate affect as a losing strategy, pushing the party to the left. If, on the other hand, Biden wins, the reverse may hold.
As Yogi Berra said, though, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
However, it can be nice to speculate. So, to get a better understanding of the future of the two parties, I talked to two University of Massachusetts students in the rival parties’ clubs on campus. Maxwell McDermott is the treasurer of the UMass College Democrats. Eli Zeh is the vice president of the UMass College Republicans. They are both political science majors and highly active in the leadership of their respective parties. I figured that if anyone at UMass could represent the future leadership of each major political party, it would be these two.
Pragmatism vs. Idealism
One of the most fascinating political battles right now is the fight between pragmatism and idealism. In the 2020 Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders was firmly in the idealist camp, whereas Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg touted their moderation. Biden repeatedly spoke about his ability to reach across the aisle, pointing to his long career as a senator as evidence.
As I gathered from my interview with McDermott, most of the College Democrats are squarely in the idealist faction, including McDermott. Along with his support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the primary and his repeated praise of Sanders, McDermott also lionizes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
His logic is rather compelling: “If you give up on beliefs because you don’t think it’s going to work, you might find yourself having sold out something that you really could have stood on for a long time.”
According to McDermott, the people on the left edge of the Democratic Party are morally correct because they refuse to sell out their core principles. Whatever you think of the radical Democrats — I think they’re wrong and dangerous — they are becoming more prominent and influential. Five years ago, nothing so radical as the Green New Deal would have ever gained traction within the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Now, even Biden has adopted various components of the proposal into his campaign platform.
After all, as McDermott told me, a policy often “starts off seeming radical and then it becomes common sense.”
Eli Zeh struck a notably different tone. He told me that he is “a big supporter of” bipartisanship. I think this mostly concerns the current situation surrounding COVID-19.
“Pragmatism comes in when there’s a pressing matter,” Zeh said. “You need that kind of short-sightedness to get the country out of that situation and back to where it’s supposed to be.”
Zeh referred to the negotiations over the COVID-19 stimulus bill that is currently frozen in Congress. He mentioned that the Democrats’ stimulus package contains components which have nothing to do with the pandemic, suggesting that they are not interested in compromise.
Zeh, who seems to support President Trump’s re-election only grudgingly, still laments the relentless partisan attacks on him. “I want to hear a Democrat say one good thing about Donald Trump,” he told me. He then said, “I want to hear a Republican say one good thing about Joe Biden.” I think that ship has sailed, and Zeh agrees: “That’s very unrealistic, sadly; I wish that was more of the norm.”
Don’t mistake Zeh’s current pragmatism for the norm of the Republican Party. During normal times, he told me, “idealism is the way to go.” You can see the national Republican Party’s lack of bipartisanship in full display in President Trump, who pits himself against anyone who opposes him.
The country’s future challenges
When you ask Republicans and Democrats what they view as the most important issues facing the country, you often get completely different answers. I think this is one reason why we’re so polarized today: If we can’t agree on what the problems are, how can we come to a solution? I asked Zeh and McDermott what challenges they see the United States facing over the next 10 years.
Surprisingly, they agreed on some of the issues.
The first issue Zeh mentioned was climate change. You may be surprised to hear that from a Republican, but young Republicans are consistently more concerned with the climate than their older peers. In keeping with Zeh’s insistence on bipartisanship, he wants both parties to put aside their differences and address climate change.
I may be biased toward Zeh’s position — after all, I once wrote a column titled “Why conservatives distrust environmentalism” — but I think he’s right about this. Climate change is an important issue, but the left gets nowhere when it insists on destroying capitalism to fight it.
Another major challenge that Zeh sees is race relations. He referenced this summer’s protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by a police officer. Zeh again wants to find a middle ground, though he’s decidedly on the Republican side of the “abolish the police” debate. His stance: “No one hates bad cops more than good cops and no one hates violent protesters more than peaceful protesters.”
Zeh rattled off some more issues, including the economy, foreign relations and the mental health effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as the potential spike in domestic violence relating to them. These issues, he contends, are the ones we may feel most immediately after COVID-19.
McDermott also believes climate change is one of the most pressing issues of the next 10 years. He views it as “our chance to come together as a society.” McDermott supports the Green New Deal, which he sees as a way to collectively fight climate change. Zeh and McDermott, therefore, miraculously agree on what the issue is, but their way of combating it pits them against each other. At least we’re making progress, no?
McDermott also thinks that we need to rethink our relationship with capitalism. The rising levels of income inequality, for instance, show that the market “hasn’t met people where they are.” McDermott didn’t say he wanted capitalism overthrown but he wants to significantly alter it.
McDermott kept coming back to what he called the de-industrialization of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s and suggested that we’re living with the consequences of it. Outsourcing, automation and stagnating wages mean that we “need to be aware of our place in the greater story of America.” Perhaps this is why McDermott also found Andrew Yang so charming — the guy who ran on Universal Basic Income as a potential cure for the automation revolution he expects to decimate the remaining industrial jobs in the United States.
The future of the two parties
“As it stands now, Trump is the Republican Party.”
That’s what Zeh told me when I asked him about President Trump’s influence on the Republican Party. It won’t change easily, he said, even though “the overarching idealism” of the Republican party “is still Reaganism.”
Like I said earlier, I think the most intriguing story of the post-election political landscape this year will be what happens to the future of the Republican Party. Zeh recognizes President Trump’s towering influence on the party but hopes that future leaders will revert to Reagan’s roots — albeit with some Trump-y elements.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, the Texas congressman best known for his appearance on Saturday Night Live after being mocked by SNL star Pete Davidson, is Zeh’s favorite politician. “When he says something, it just makes sense,” Zeh said. He hopes Crenshaw will be able to beat the more Trump-like politicians, like Sen. Josh Hawley and Rep. Matt Gaetz, in any future contest for leadership.
On the other hand, McDermott preferred Ocasio-Cortez over the more moderate Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, when I gave him the choice between those two. AOC’s vision, according to McDermott, “is the way of the future.” However, McDermott notes AOC may only be able to win in her non-competitive district in New York City. For her to become, say, senator of New York, she would have to prove her model works in bigger races.
McDermott told me that Biden was not the first choice of many young Democrats. He is, however, willing to follow the will of the people: After authoring the 1994 crime bill, Biden has renounced it as the Democratic Party has moved to the left on criminal justice.
Interestingly, McDermott believes that the Democratic Party made a mistake in going so far to the left rhetorically on racial issues. McDermott thinks that the Democratic Party “didn’t realize how” academic language on race “sounded to people who didn’t have jobs.”
“Maybe we need to do a better job explaining that our policies are meant for everybody,” McDermott said, rather than just marginalized groups. “We really mean the best for everybody.”
Zeh wasn’t willing to condemn the GOP on either messaging or policies. He told me Republicans haven’t done anything to target specific races or other groups of people, rejecting any charge of racism by Republicans.
“The Republican Party was an abolitionist party,” Zeh reminded me.
He’s right, but I think Republicans have to think more critically about their role in racial politics — especially if they want to win more than 8 percent of Black voters in a presidential election.
Unsurprisingly, the two leaders were critical of the opposite party.
Zeh sad that the Democratic Party is “supposed to be the party of the working man,” but pointed to former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s attacks on labor union leadership and the party’s newfound insistence on “social justice” as evidence that they have strayed from their course.
On the other hand, McDermott believes that the Republicans’ base “lost faith in them.” The always-uneasy relationship between the “country club class” and the religious working class “is over.” This, McDermott says, is demonstrated by Trump’s dominance over the Republican Party. To win voters, McDermott says, the Republican Party needs to realize that their policies serve a limited circle of businesspeople and white Christians. I think he’s overstating it, but he has the right spirit.
This election is shaping up to be every bit as contentious as 2016. Whether you believe the polls or not, President Trump is in a tough position to win re-election: He’s consistently had low approval numbers, he put in a terrible and childish first debate performance and the economic numbers following the pandemic have been historically bad.
But, as a forgotten wise man once said, it’s not over until it’s over. One thing’s for sure: this election matters a lot for the country’s future. I, for one, am anxious to see what the coming days have in store. I only hope that we start a more civilized debate than the one we’ve been having this year.
Greg Fournier can be reached at [email protected]