One thing is clear. Joe Biden’s attempts to shape his presidency in the mold of FDR were a bridge too far for a divided country. Trying for Lincoln would have been—and still is—a better course.
Like most Americans, I was naively optimistic that President Biden would move as he promised to unify the red-blue, rural-urban, and conservative-liberal divide to solve problems facing the country. His greatest opportunity – and challenge – as an experienced, values-oriented leader was to address dangerous weaknesses in our political system. Like many frustrated Americans, I wanted badly to take him at face value, given our bitterly divided country.
Instead of choosing to improve the political process, Biden has chosen the tired path of “party over country.” This strategy works well for political survival, but not so well in solving our biggest problems. Getting 51.3% of the popular vote and having close margins in the House and Senate does not constitute a mandate – and that is exactly how he has attempted to lead with Build Back Better and Voting Rights. Biden is as captive to the stranglehold of the two parties as anyone else.
Democracy requires joint problem-solving, debate, critical thinking, and attention to the process for getting things done. All of these qualities have been sadly lacking in Washington and especially in Congress. Today, we have two parties that want one-party rule when they are in charge. In reality, we have one-party rule in the 83 percent of our congressional districts that are not competitive. The biggest threat to a politician does not come from the other side of the aisle, but during the primary when they are likely to face a challenger wearing the same proverbial jersey.
Unlike past generations that benefited from a fulcrum of moderates, our current political landscape is hijacked by extremes in both parties that are not averse to taking authoritarian perspectives. Many of these politicians operate under the premise that “we are right, and they are wrong,” so we are justified in “winning at any cost.” Given the influence that the extremes have on the two parties today, we are failing to solve a litany of problems (including, for example, immigration, environment, and education) and are becoming further divided. This can’t end well for our institutions, our democracy, and the country without some adjustments to our system.
Biden still has a chance to reflect on the promise he made in his inaugural speech to unify the country – remembering, too, that 42% of American voters are unaffiliated with either party.
Infrastructure was a success, and now he has a few other issues where there is possible ground for bipartisan support, such as extending the enhanced child tax credit (Mitt Romney has made a recent proposal) and enactment of a bill to amend the Electoral Count Act (of which Mitch McConnell and other Republicans support). The latter should be an absolute priority to protect the country from potentially greater chaos in the future than was experienced on January 6, 2021.
Changes must be made to better align politicians with public interest rather than to party and special interests that are amplified today by extreme partisan, media, and social media voices. To achieve this end, Congress must become an effective body once again. Until addressed, the country is subject to the lurching of one-sided policy solutions and executive orders from one administration to the next.
Biden must address this by articulating a challenge to the country that is bigger, harder, and more consequential than JFK’s challenge to land on the moon. The challenge is the major concern that the Founders had about “factions:” in other words, the problem of political parties.
I appreciate that there will be ferocious push-back (understatement) from the political establishment and vested interests and that these issues will not be solved overnight; however, there is already a hopeful start with some notable experiments at the state level, influenced and driven by many political reform organizations. Many local governments, and some states, have implemented non-partisan primaries and ranked-choice voting; and others are seriously scrutinizing their gerrymandered districts.
Biden should use his political capital to push these initiatives into the mainstream and develop a unifying vision for how political process and governance will be improved over the next ten years. He should partner with governors and challenge Congress and the American people. The vision should include several elements to improve our political process including the rules by which Congress (both houses) chooses its leaders and considers and enacts legislation, laws regarding campaign financing transparency and fairness, how citizens engage the political process, the role of the press, and so forth.
A fundamental first step to making progress on any of the elements of the vision, particularly with respect to how Congress works, is to engage governors and states to encourage adoption of party-neutral redistricting, combined with open, non-partisan primaries, rather than separate party primaries, and general elections that require a majority to win – either by run-off or ranked-choice voting.
It is urgent to address how we conduct our political primaries. We must create the incentive for politicians to appeal to a broader base of voters than the more partisan and relatively few who vote in party primaries today. Ultimately, the country should consider adopting an open presidential primary process with run-off or ranked-choice voting.
It has taken decades for this situation to evolve to where it is today, and unaddressed it will continue to worsen and eat away at our democratic institutions. To meet this existential problem, there must be a commitment to continuously improve our institutions and win back the public’s faith in them. If Biden could lay the foundation for improved political process and governance over the next decade, it is possible that he could create an arc in our nation’s history that places him in the pantheon of American leaders.
Daniel J. Fisher
Dan is board chair for Nixon Medical (a New Castle, DE, headquartered company) and the Central New York Community Foundation (Syracuse, NY). A former (35 year) EVP, HR for Welch Allyn, he is an executive advisor to the Cornell University ILR School executive master’s in human resources, a member of the community of donors to Unite America, a practitioner of contemplative prayer, a developer of a flowering meadow at his lake home in Skaneateles, husband, father, grandfather, and American—not necessarily in priority order.