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  • Writer's pictureJulia Azari

The year everything changed, and nothing did

In 2020, the year in review genre feels especially challenging and fraught, with high stakes for being either too depressing or too glib. And just as we’re only beginning to contend with the consequences of the year’s events for society, culture, education, commerce – it’s obviously very early to assess the impact its politics. Nevertheless, I want to return to a theme that I’ve observed throughout the past four years: the combination of deeply abnormal and unsettling politics alongside the stability, and even stagnation, of political institutions and behavior.

Historically minded scholars of institutions and policy have some words for this (here’s a nice primer). We have “drift” – in which a policy or institution stays the same, but changing context means that it has a different impact or function than initially intended. There’s also “conversion,” in which policies and institutions are “redirected” to new ends. Some of the examples I discuss here probably fit into one of those categories, others might not. But these ideas provide a useful framework for thinking about how much our institutions can change while the rules remain in place and the usual political forces hold the levers of power in place.

From federalism to fracturing

Federalism took on new meaning almost immediately in the Trump administration, becoming a source of progressive resistance. As the covid-19 pandemic engulfed the nation in the spring, its effects moved out of the realm of civics textbooks and into the mainstream of political conversations. Some of this was neither drift nor conversion but just new urgency and salience: we suddenly had a reason to think about the fact that public health policies are made and enacted at the state and local level. This revealed inequities, differences in priority and political philosophy, and institutional differences in things like which governors have more extensive emergency powers. The country’s urban-rural divisions were once again on display, with cities making their own rules about masking, business closures, and public and even private gatherings. I remember driving to work (teaching in person) one day this fall and try to recall the rules and guidelines issued by the state of Wisconsin, the city of Milwaukee (maybe also the county?) and which my university was adhering to that day. I missed that coherence across levels of government in the way you never pay much attention to an old building downtown, until one day it’s torn down and leaves a gap in the skyline.

But federalism has allowed for some degree of policy incoherence of this sort for years – for a long time in same-sex marriage rights, still in many forms of anti-discrimination law. It also manifests in drug policy as states and cities legalize and decriminalize marijuana and other drugs – but federal law remains unchanged. As 2020 increased our capacity to tolerate these contradictions, I wonder how much we will see, and whether that variation will lend itself to a diverse, if patchwork nation, or be one more factor that makes us ungovernable.

Black Lives Matter Changed the world… but not the Democratic Party

On this point, I think I’m broadly in agreement with what Seth Masket wrote about the impact of the movement – little on the election, probably more on policy once the Biden administration begins. But I want to think specifically about the relationship between movements for racial and economic justice and the Democratic Party.

Scholars of U.S. political parties should probably spend more time thinking about drift and conversion when we consider parties as institutions. The Democratic Party as we know it is really the product of periodic grafting of new ideas, purposes, and coalitions onto an old organizational form. Its status as a piecework coalition of groups that see themselves, broadly speaking, as minorities, provides an odd continuity. But the twenty-first century has seen a revival of movements to make the party into a more clearly ideological one. These movements are important and they’ve influenced the party – but not shaken its foundations.

As I’ve written before, parties are conservative, risk-averse institutions, and the Democratic Party has a complicated and fragmented electoral imperative. Over the summer, I predicted that the wave of protests against police violence and racial injustice, coupled with the pandemic and the struggling economy, would be a change election and that the Democratic Party would be the obvious, if somewhat ill-fitting, vehicle for that change.

The November election results carried a more ambiguous message. While Biden won a decisive victory, the Democrats lost House seats and failed to pick up Senate seats they had hoped to win. Turnout was up among Democrats, but also among Republicans. And fights over whether Democrats had tacked too far to the left – and whether slogans like “defund the police” had harmed the party despite not being part of the platform or the Biden policy program.

There are a lot of questions here – about messaging, about the electoral calculus of a party disadvantaged by political geography, compounded in some cases by redistricting efforts. But there are also questions about the tensions within the Democratic Party over increasing diversity, attending to economic inequality, and yet maintaining the status quo. It seems even clearer now than it did a year ago that this is Obama’s party, and that this delicate balancing act is an important part of his legacy.

Trump broke the presidency

I realize this probably seems a little stark compared to my usual overly complicated and ambivalent observations. But everything that has happened between the 2020 election and now really clarified my view on this. The essence of the American presidency is that its powers are in many ways unspecified, but their expansion and extension has nearly always been connected to the president’s duty to defend the Constitution, or to protect the security of the nation. Some of these expansions of power have been wrong-headed, some of have been outright bullshit. But someone in the White House has pretty consistently tried to make that linkage.

Trump has changed that. After the 2020 election, he transgressed the boundaries that keep the president out of the Electoral College process – a state process – and pressured state and local officials. He used his Twitter account to advocate for “overturning” the election. He spoke about a military coup. Under these conditions, the oath of office no longer has meaning. The take care clause no longer has meaning. This all came as a shock but not a surprise, nothing we have seen in 4 years has made us expect anything different, or demonstrated that Trump and those around him have any real understanding of the Constitution. Trump occupied the office, took up its powers and its symbolic influence. But he neglected its civically sacred obligation to direct those powers toward the Constitution and the nation, co-opting them instead for his personal and political ends.

Biden ran in part on restoring a more conventional approach to the office, and it seems likely that he will try to bring the powers of the office back into line with its Constitutional purpose. But we’ve seen once that these can be severed, and without complete rebuke. Both Trump and Biden, in very distinct ways, ran campaigns of preservation and restoration. And now Biden will inherit the altered political landscape that Trump will leave behind. The need to reconnect presidential power and national interest could go in a number of directions. It may provide opportunities for subsequent presidents to spell out civic purpose and Constitutional meaning. It may also be just the beginning, a dangerous precedent for a truly unhindered executive power.

As the year and the Trump presidency both come to a close, we’ve heard a lot of questions about whether American political institutions “held up.” But institutions are more complicated than that. Our institutions feel a bit like everything at the end of 2020 – fundamentally altered and yet also stalled. They have proven flexible in some ways, rigid and stagnant in others, and in other cases, highly susceptible to the will and ideas of those who hold power within them. Institutions that can’t adapt seem potentially more brittle than ever. The last four years – not just 2020 – have expanded the range of what we might see as politically possible. As we head into 2021 and a new administration, these possibilities stare us down, wonderful and terrifying all at once.


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