The thread that runs through hope and change, make America great again, and build back better is disruption.
Many Americans believe that the government does not work for them. Over the past four decades, they have seen the middle class gutted; they have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet; they have to choose between going to the doctor, paying the rent, getting the car fixed, and buying warm coats for their kids. They have seen politician after politician promise a better tomorrow, only to be disappointed by a string of unfulfilled yesterdays.
President Obama promised hope and change. He inherited the Great Recession from George W. Bush and two endless wars. Without bitter recrimination, Obama pulled us from the brink of ruin and built an economy that grew for seven successive years. He saved the auto industry and Wall Street from bankruptcy, while establishing new rules to protect the consumer from fraud and predation. Yet, Obama also extended regressive Republican tax cuts. Walmart and McDonalds earned billions, while tens of thousands of their employees sought Medicaid and food stamps because their wages fell short. Unions faltered. Those who had hoped for change did not feel it.
President Trump promised to make American great again, tapping into the vein of anti-government discontent. Like the Miley Cyrus song, Trump came in like a wrecking ball. Trump double downed on tax policies that siphoned money away from blue collar workers and into his own coffers. The Obama economy he inherited continued to grow, but not for the same people who sought a fair shake. The economy crashed as it hit the pandemic wall.
Trump, however, never sought to revitalize the middle class. He built on Reagan’s mantra that government is the problem, not the solution. Unlike the Republicans before him, Trump battered every aspect of our government and democracy, and the crowds cheered. Trump has decimated our defense, diplomacy and rule of law. Wreckage, not prosperity, was progress under the Trump brand.
A significant number of voters do not care that Trump lied twenty thousand times, committed impeachable crimes, used his office to line his pockets, ceded U.S. authority to Russia and China, ignored doctor’s orders on dealing with Covid-19, bragged about sexual assault, snatched Americans off the streets into unmarked vans, separated children from their parents at the border, stoked racism and xenophobia, and bloated our national debt. They do not hold the Republicans responsible for aiding and abetting his criminal enterprise. They, instead, applaud Trump’s unitary destruction of the status quo. To move forward, we must understand that anger, and that a return to normalcy is not the end either Trump or Biden supporters seek.
Here are five ways to disrupt the status quo and build back better.
Build community. Biden must tear down the walls that divide us. He should broker a new national service program so that high school graduates from across the country serve our nation for two years. Young adults could choose whether to join the military, or national service corps in public health, teaching, Peace Corps or the arts. A national service program could restore national pride, build bridges among communities, create jobs, and provide a path for further education.
Restore democratic norms. Biden must demonstrate that strength lies in democracy, not in its obliteration. He must enact laws to end gerrymandering, contain corporate financing of elections, make voting easy not hard, and ensure that one person one vote counts. To the extent Congress will not lead, he must work with the states. Biden must also bolt down the democratic norms that Trump has bulldozed, requiring future Presidents to release tax returns, preventing White House interference in prosecutorial decisions, setting qualifications for political appointees, preventing self-enrichment while serving our nation, and much more.
Hold lawbreakers accountable. Biden must hold accountable those who have broken the law. If those who break the rules, get away with it, they will do it again. The public who sees officials escape punishment for their crimes believe that the law shouldn’t apply to them either. There are those who worry that prosecuting Trump and his enablers will be seen as revenge. There is sharp difference between chanting lock her up without evidence and pursuing legitimate criminal investigations without fear or favor. The rule of law can correct corruption.
Change public discourse. Biden must also seize hold of the public narrative. We face an unprecedented onslaught of disinformation. An informed citizenry is essential for democracy to function. Biden must use his bully pulpit, as he has during the transition. The Federal Communications Commission must step up its oversight to ensure that networks, cable and social media do not traffic in lies. Congress should re-adopt the Fairness Doctrine to ensure that equal time is given to opinions so that viewers are not exposed to only one side. Biden should reach out to media executives to establish rules of the road that will steer us toward equilibrium. Biden alone cannot do this. He must enlist the support of Americans in every community to push back against the propaganda that has torn at the fabric of our freedom.
Focus on jobs and health. Lastly, in pursuit of a better tomorrow, Biden must focus like a laser on the health of our nation and better jobs to demonstrate that democracy works. Biden is on the right path in addressing the global pandemic, setting a personal example by wearing a mask, establishing an advisory panel of doctors and medical experts, listening to the scientists and following the data. He will bring us out of this medical catastrophe, ensure that those with preexisting conditions are covered, and work to strengthen health care.
Biden must also demonstrate that his economic policies will repair the damage done to working families the past four decades. His policies should all tie back to opportunity and prosperity for all. Containing Covid is about getting our economy on its feet. Building roads and bridges and restoring the nation’s infrastructure is about getting American jobs moving again. Addressing the existential threat posed by climate pollution will create many new jobs. Strengthening unions will build better wages. Increasing taxes on the ultra-wealthy will ensure that the government has the revenue to pay our service members and veterans, and to protect Americans from pandemics and recessions. The national service program will do for us today what the public works programs did in World War II.
What Americans want is economic security. We want to know that we will be okay and that those who follow us will have a better tomorrow. We want to know that government is on our side and can deliver. We have endured four decades of broken promises and government bashing. Now, the resentment has been stoked by an unprecedented onslaught of lies, deception and misdirection. So, while President-elect Biden and his team must deliver jobs and health security, he will succeed long-term only if he also strengthens our democracy and restores civility.
We are facing a moment like in World War II where our nation must come together as one. It will require sacrifice, but we are up to the task. We have met tough challenges before. We have come together despite our differences, and grown stronger because of them. Disrupting entrenched ways is the core of building back better.