Believe it or not, on Wednesday we begin the decade of the 2020s. So, after a tumultuous and unpredictable last decade, what is the biggest challenge or issue facing the nation in the 2020s?
There is no shortage of challenges going forward: The contentious presidency and re-election of Donald Trump; climate change; the gargantuan and growing federal budget and debt; the hazards of social media and social isolation; the future of work in an age of automation and artificial intelligence; comprehensive immigration reform; health care reform; and so forth.
Those are all critical issues. But dealing with any of them will depend on overcoming one enormous, overriding challenge of the 2020s: bringing together an intractably divided country and especially the politicians who represent the vastly different faces of America.
Donald Trump is not the cause of this immense divide. But he has brought it into stark relief, exposed it for everyone to see. The reality is that Congress is today divided and dysfunctional, the presidency is crippled by foolish and partisan impeachment, and the 2020 election will further rip apart the nation.
It’s hard to deal with the fundamental problems of America when congressional caucuses, the president, and the factions they represent are so far apart as to be living on different planets.
Certainly, by many measures, the country is doing just fine. The economy is booming, jobs are plentiful and America is strong. But the funhouse is built upon a very shaky foundation. It would only take an economic downturn, or rising interest rates, to drive annual deficits to such unsustainable levels that the economy would be plunged into recession or depression.
Without leaders who are willing to put aside partisan differences and make difficult decisions, no hope exists that skyrocketing spending can be brought under control.
The major divide in the country is between liberal elitists living mostly on the coasts and in big cities, and the rest of the country. The liberal elitists are abetted by most of the traditional news media, academia, and establishment politicians and officials who look to the federal government to solve the nation’s problems -- with resulting high taxes and regulation. This side of the divide focuses on identity politics, victimhood, globalism, climate change, social justice, political correctness and free goodies for everyone.
On the other side of the divide are conservative working Americans in fly-over country who are focused on family, work, religion, patriotism, and traditional values, including conventional marriage and gender roles. They recognize that fixing the problems of society is first a job for families, neighbors and communities, not the federal government with more regulation and higher taxes.
The world views of the two sides are dramatically different, although the country still has a reasonable center made up of people who are not very vocal or politically active.
Bringing the sides close enough together so that the federal government can function reasonably well will not happen quickly or easily. It has taken more than a decade to get to this point (at least since the 2009 Tea Party revolt), and reaching more unity is probably a decade-long endeavor.
In the relatively near future, some events will allow us to see progress or regression. One will be who the Democrats nominate as their presidential candidate. If they nominate an arch-liberal/socialist like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, the divide will grow. If they nominate Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar it may be a step toward healing.
One the Republican side, the big question is what happens to the party and the conservative movement post-Donald Trump, whether that is in one year or five years. Is there an emerging leader who can unite conservatives as Trump has, but is less divisive and contentious and more appealing to moderates?
I’m really not very hopeful about the nation coming together to solve big problems. But it’s the new decade’s biggest challenge, and one worth pursuing.