Tectonic shifts to watch for in 2020

Tectonic shifts to watch for in 2020
© Greg Nash

Brace yourself. We are less than a day into one of the most wrenching and important years in political history, a year that may determine whether an even more chaotic decade unfolds. The past decade brought us seminal elections as political tidal waves swelled, washed away conventions, and reshaped our entire national landscape. Ultimately, the coming decade will reveal how we rebuild and adjust to constantly shifting party plates.

Thomas Jefferson called his presidential election the “Revolution of 1800" because, despite profound and deep differences between his Republican Party and the Federalist Party, power was transferred peacefully from one party to the other. This first political handover established crucial national norms that would remain the public standard for the next two centuries.

In 1860, America would reorient its moral compass by electing Abraham Lincoln. On the eve of war, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln spoke of the “better angels of our nature.” He hoped the just instincts of the people would bring the union together under more humane circumstances. But Lincoln recognized that unification of the country could no longer occur under peaceful circumstances. Many of those angels left this earth on bloodsoaked battlefields of the Civil War. But they also left behind the permanence of a country that would not abide slavery or subjugation.

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A hundred years later in 1960, the election of John Kennedy set forth into motion a new trajectory. “Let the word go forth,” he said in his inaugural address, “from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” That generation set its eyes on new frontiers and soared to the highest heights. By the end of the decade we, as Kennedy promised in 1962, landed man on the moon.

Then, after the 2000 election, a tectonic shift again. The stable transfer of power was upended by the chaos of “hanging chads” in Florida. Then came the ascendency of social media and the tribal warring of the cable television networks. We descended from the “better angels” of Lincoln to the assertion by Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Congress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff MORE that among white supremacists marching in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” Today, “better angels” may be among us, but they operate in a scorched and hellish political climate.

So we have arrived on the first day of the first year of a new decade. Here are four political tectonic shifts to watch for that could define the future.

First, the fate of the Republican Party. Will the November election drive the final nail in the coffin of the Republican Party we once knew? Will the rebranding and debasing of Republican ideology, from free trade to tariffs, be complete? Will it be a party of Lincoln, or will it offer succor to the likes of Mark Villalta, who said in the New York Times on Sunday that if Trump loses, “Nothing less than a civil war would happen.” Or Evan Sayet, who said in the same weekend article that Democrats are the “heirs to Adolf Hitler.” I get that these are just a few lunatics in a Republican crowd. But why the cowed silence from my Republican friends who know better?

Second, are Democrats purists or pragmatists? The primaries will test a fundamental attitude. Will Democrats consolidate behind Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and produce a nominee who passes an ideological litmus test with flying colors but cannot attract purple voters? Will they nominate a candidate who can draw moderate voters but falls short of policy perfection? What about the down ballot races in a year that will trigger redistricting? There are two elections coinciding in November. There is the presidential, which everyone talks about, and there is the gubernatorial, which determines district maps that can last a decade.

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Third, the direction of the federal courts. While he stonewalled around 300 bills passed by the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has nonetheless greased the confirmations of more than 180 federal and district judges nominated by Trump. The generational recasting of the federal judiciary is now well underway. Will another four years of judicial appointments by Trump lock things down over the next four decades?

Fourth, what is America? We debate that question in most presidential elections, but the debate has been within generally agreed upon norms. We do not debate the black and white. We mostly disagree on the shades and hues. But this election is almost as stark as the one in 1860. It is not actually about who we choose at the top of the ticket. It is about how we view the whole of our country. It is not about a political character but our national character. That character was powerfully molded in 1800, 1860, 1960, and 2000. The next few months may define the foreseeable future.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg in the spotlight for Nevada debate What to watch in the debate tonight The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders surge triggers Dem angst MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.