America’s Existential Election

Daron Acemoglu, Richard Haass, and Anne-Marie Slaughter,

It’s Election Day in the United States. What happens today – and in the coming days or weeks – will have far-reaching implications not only for Americans, but for people worldwide. In today’s special Say More feature, three PS contributors and US policy experts – MIT’s Daron Acemoglu, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, and Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter – consider the stakes.

Daron Acemoglu Says More…

Project Syndicate: In March, you described the pillars of “an effective anti-[Donald] Trump reform agenda”: a plan to generate more good jobs, reforms to give a majority of Americans a voice in politics, and increased independence for America’s bureaucracy and judiciary. If Joe Biden wins today’s election, to what extent will he pursue such an agenda? Are there likely policies that you would consider particularly ill advised?

Daron Acemoglu: If Biden wins, I see three major obstacles to the implementation of an effective reform agenda. The first is the possibility of a continued Republican majority in the Senate. After Trump, there will be a fight to restore the “soul of the Republican Party.” But, given the extent to which Trump has reshaped the party, and how little courage and dedication to political norms Republicans have shown over the last four years, I’m not hopeful that the “soul” that emerges will have much in common with that of the Republican Party before the 1990s.

As foot soldiers for some version of what has effectively become the Trump Party, Republican senators would work hard to block every Democratic policy proposal, much as they did during Barack Obama’s presidency. An effective reform agenda would be rendered impossible.

The second obstacle is lack of vision. Biden has campaigned well and built a broad coalition within American society. But it isn’t clear to me whether he and his top advisers really have what it takes, in terms of vision and courage. America is at a historical inflection point; we need comprehensive political and economic reform.

Political reform will have to strengthen democratic institutions and bolster institutional independence. It will also have to make American institutions more representative of modern America, by tackling issues concerning the Electoral College and the Senate’s structure.

Economic reform is even more difficult, because it will require us to disregard two decades of policy consensus. The last 30 years have made clear that giving a free pass or even a helping hand to large corporations will not lead to good economic opportunities and decent incomes for ordinary Americans, even with some redistributive taxation, especially given the country’s meager social safety net.

We need to change how the economy works, especially by reducing the influence of large corporations, and restructure the labor market, by increasing the minimum wage and bolstering institutions that provide protection to low-paid workers.

Most important, we need to redirect technological change, so that we use our enormous technological potential not just for more and more automation, but also to create new and better opportunities for workers. These were not policy priorities for Democrats like Obama and Hillary Clinton. Will Biden be able to forge a new vision – and build the coalition needed to realize it? Time will tell.

The third obstacle is a deepening schism within the Democratic Party. After Biden emerged as the presumptive nominee in March, the party did remain relatively united. Bernie Sanders – Biden’s last competitor standing in the primaries and the standard-bearer of the party’s left wing – and his allies deserve credit for rallying support for Biden and promoting unity at this epochal juncture. But there is no guarantee that this will last, especially if the Democrats also take the Senate.

While it makes sense for the party’s left wing to call for more radical action, an excessively divisive approach – or a hijacking of the agenda – will make progress much more difficult, including by distorting the sequencing of policies. For example, though climate change is clearly a monumental challenge, which demands decisive action, it would be self-defeating for the Biden administration to put climate action before the aforementioned political and economic reforms.

PS: If Trump wins, would the “gradual radicalism” you advocate still be possible four years from now? Which elements of this agenda might be salvaged – say, if the Democrats gain a majority in the US Senate?

DA: I proposed gradual radicalism as a prescription for addressing the urgent challenges facing the US. As mentioned above, these include the huge increase in inequality; the disappearance of good, high-paying jobs; the unparalleled economic dominance of a few companies; the erosion of the capacity of (and trust in) state institutions; and the unraveling of democracy. All of these are fundamental problems, which demand radical solutions. But the only way to implement those solutions is gradually, through building broad coalitions for change.

This approach is essential to preserve and strengthen our institutions. But it also depends on these institutions functioning, at least to some degree. If the country becomes even more polarized, the courts become even more politicized, and political norms of compromise become even weaker, none of this will be possible.

Another four years of Trump will bring all these ills and more. In fact, if he wins, I would have serious doubts about the survival of American democracy and institutions. This is thus an existential election for the United States of America.

Of course, if such a tragedy were to befall the US, a Democratic-controlled legislature would be a major impediment to the worst schemes of Trump and his allies. But it is hard for me to imagine a scenario in which Trump wins the presidency, and the Democrats retake the Senate. The more likely scenario, if Trump does win, is a Republican-controlled Senate. That, together with courts packed with Trump appointees and a demoralized and muzzled civil service, would make restraining Trump’s agenda a gargantuan feat.

Even if Trump loses, gradual radicalism could be off the table. If Trump refuses to concede, and the Republican establishment backs him, polarization would be intensified, making it well-nigh impossible to build coalitions and foster the trust in institutions that radical reforms require. Likewise, if Biden wins, but the Democratic Party’s most left-wing elements cannot be kept in check, gradual radicalism would be impossible.

Richard Haass Says More…

Project Syndicate: In August, you wrote that the chances of a Sino-American cold war – or even actual war – were “far higher” than they were at the start of the year, largely because the Chinese government has lately “embraced a more assertive path at home and abroad.” You noted that this may be partly an attempt to take advantage of America’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 crisis. If today’s election results are challenged, how might Xi capitalize on political instability in the US? What other foreign-policy risks would such an outcome pose, both in the short term and with regard to America’s global standing?

Richard Haass: Any political crisis in the US triggered by a disputed 2020 presidential election outcome would leave the country even more divided and distracted than it already is. Such a development would also come against the backdrop of a US foreign policy that, in recent years, has raised mounting questions about the country’s reliability as an ally and willingness to sustain the use of military force.

In such circumstances, there is the risk that China might be tempted to take coercive actions against Taiwan that would expose Taiwan’s vulnerability and bring it more under the sway of the mainland. One could also imagine increased Chinese military activities vis-à-vis India and Japan, and in the South China Sea.

Elsewhere in the world, there is the risk of new and destabilizing initiatives by Russia, Turkey, Iran, North Korea, and others, driven by the hope that the chances of a US response – especially a military response – would be much lower than at any point in decades. Working against this, however, is the possibility that these countries would decide to be more cautious, given the potential for a Biden victory and a desire not to alienate the new president before he even takes office.

PS: A Biden victory will not solve all of America’s foreign-policy problems. What mistakes is a Biden administration most at risk of making, and how can they be avoided?

RH: I would expect a Biden administration to work to repair American alliances and to rejoin a good many of the agreements and organizations from which the US has withdrawn over the past three and a half years. That would be welcome.

At the same time, alliances must not only be repaired, but also reinvigorated, to contend with a broader range of geopolitical and global challenges. Achieving consensus will be anything but easy.

Similarly, existing treaties and organizations – including those dealing with climate change, world health, trade, and Iran – are inadequate in many ways. The challenge will be to build domestic and international consensus to bring about their reform.

All this would need to be carried out in a country that is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, politically divided, and facing severe economic challenges. These circumstances will complicate the task of designing and implementing foreign policy.

Anne-Marie Slaughter Says More…

Project Syndicate: After the 2018 midterm election, you discussed with Elmira Bayrasli the possibility that a “cornered” Trump might attempt to “exploit external problems – concerning Syria, Iran, and Russia, in particular – to undermine the Democrats’ popularity following their takeover of the House of Representatives.” Could a narrow Trump victory today – especially alongside a Democratic sweep of Congress – heighten such risks? How could a Democratic Congress check a Trump administration, especially in the foreign-policy arena?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Political leaders commonly use foreign “crises” to distract from domestic politics when they are faced with unpleasant or adverse circumstances at home. So, if Trump were re-elected, but faced a Democrat-controlled Congress, he could be expected to make greater use of his executive powers, which are strongest in the realm of foreign policy.

That said, a Democratic Congress could take a number of measures to constrain Trump’s scope of action. It could leverage its “power of the purse” to block any initiatives he wishes to undertake that require public funding. It could also refuse to legislate sanctions he wishes to impose or to ratify agreements he reaches. And it could pass “sense of the Senate” or “sense of Congress” resolutions that send a different message to the world than whatever he might proclaim.

Most dramatically, a Democratic Congress could refuse to confirm Trump’s nominees to foreign-policy positions. And it could hold key legislation on other issues hostage, forcing Trump to stand down on a particular foreign-policy issue in exchange for passing it.

But these more extreme actions carry serious risks. Yes, they might make sense in the short run, if Trump is pursuing a dangerous course that could lead to war or irreparable breaches of America’s alliances. A move to withdraw from NATO is a good example. But, in the longer term, they would result in the complete breakdown of the informal norms of governance that are required to keep all presidential (as opposed to parliamentary) systems functioning.

PS: In September, you and Sharon E. Burke argued that “Americans need to embrace the country’s diversity as a source of strength and solidarity that will allow it to meet collective challenges at home and abroad.” If Biden wins today’s election, which concrete steps should his administration take to realize this potential?

AMS: There are many important steps a President Biden could take. The most important would be to overhaul America’s national-security and foreign-policy apparatus, to ensure that political, Foreign Service, civil service, and expert appointees actually reflect the country’s demography.

The Foreign Service, for example, is still 65% male and mostly white. I have proposed the creation of a new Global Service, which would create far more opportunities for women and people of color. As I wrote in June, thinking in terms of global security, in addition to national security, would help to elevate vitally important issues, such as those addressed by the Sustainable Development Goals. These include climate change, access to food, water, and energy, and preservation of biodiversity, as well as health security, cyber-security, and migration and refugees. The people who work on these issues, nationally and globally, are far more likely to be women and people of color than those working in the traditional national-security realm.

A President Biden could also make a difference by creating a new cabinet-level Department of Global Development. And his administration could support networks of foreign-affairs officials based in mayors’ and governors’ offices across the US, thereby opening up access to a wider and more diverse pool of candidates at the federal level.

All of these personnel-side policies are essential to achieve real change. But, more broadly, Biden should explicitly and consistently emphasize the fundamental truth that America’s diversity is one of our greatest strengths. We are a country that reflects and connects the world – and that is how our president should view and describe us.

Immigrant communities constitute cultural, commercial, educational, and recreational links to their home countries, which can benefit the US in countless ways. And Americans of different ethnic and racial lineages whose families have been in the country for a long time – like many African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans – may still have a greater interest in traveling to and connecting with the countries from which their ancestors came.

A US that wants to re-engage with the world and play a leading role in promoting peace, prosperity, dignity, and opportunity for all would start by viewing its own people as many and one at the same time, representing the world’s cultures and creating their own.

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. Richard Haass is President of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The World: A Brief Introduction. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department (2009-11), is CEO of the think tank New America, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.