Last month, the Democratic and Republican National Committees held their party conventions where they adopted party platforms and nominated their presidential and vice presidential candidates for the 2020 election. While both parties made cases that the other party was too big a risk to take on November 3rd, neither of them offered an adequate response to a seemingly obvious question: what about after 2020?
The Democratic Party’s convention was disappointingly spare on ideas of how to address the pandemic upheaval beyond vague promises of competency and following “science over politics.” While that may be an effective campaign message, it does not offer the kind of response warranted by economist Michael Strain’s warning that it is “difficult to imagine that the economy in the spring of 2021 won’t be very weak, with recession-level unemployment.”
Such a bleak forecast should demand some greater detail about what a Democratic victory in 2020 would do to shore up the economy long-term. As many young Americans are unfortunately well-acquainted, a recession is no small issue and requires forward-looking thinking to ease the burden.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s acceptance speech highlighted a similar blind spot for his prospective administration. There was no mention of the $25 trillion national debt, and this omission was compounded by the fact that he vowed to “protect Social Security and Medicare.” Even allowing for the fact that details are not often found in convention speeches, there was no mention of how that promise squares with the fact that the Social Security and Medicare trust funds face insolvency as soon as this decade. While going on to praise young Americans for “speaking to the inequity and injustice that has grown up in America, economic injustice, racial injustice, environmental injustice,” not mentioning the onslaught of fiscal crises awaiting young Americans struck a dissonant tone.
In the case of the RNC, there is a giant question mark hanging over whether or not they are even thinking about a long-term vision. Before their convention began, the RNC’s platform committee shocked some conservatives by not adopting a new platform at the 2020 convention. Instead, the resolution announcing this decision pledged the RNC “enthusiastically supports President Trump” and “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” What that “America-first agenda” entails remains to be seen.
Party platforms used to be integral to forming consensus positions within the parties on how they would address long-term concerns of the American people. The Dispatch Editor-in-Chief Jonah Goldberg explains that a platform once was emblematic of this vision of the future, made significant by the fact that they were “statements of principle and policy, hammered out between different factions within a party, to state clearly (or sometimes murkily) what the party stands for.”
Goldberg laments the RNC’s abandonment of this conception of the party platform by emphasizing that once upon a time, “the principle that the party and its elected officials were bound to the platform had some juice in it.” As of now, it represents a blank slate for the Republican nominee.
The RNC’s subsequent programming bore this out. Recounting the convention, Commentary Magazine Associate Editor Noah Rothman forcefully concluded that “conservative philosophy and the president’s actual record proved no obstacle to the development of an advantageous narrative. If there was a guiding principle on display, it was to make the sale. Whatever that takes.” As with Vice President Biden’s acceptance speech, President Trump also promised to “protect Medicare and Social Security” with little indication of how that could be achieved. In what once upon a time was a bedrock issue for Republicans, President Trump also did not once mention the national debt.
That last point is particularly alarming. Not only has the debt been climbing to new bounds in the absence of a plan from either party to get it under control, but the coronavirus pandemic has managed to push it past the size of U.S. GDP. New York Times Columnist Matt Phillips highlights that despite the financial system’s current ambivalence regarding the titanic size of the debt, the fact that “dire predictions of soaring interest rates for business and consumer borrowing and crushing inflation as the government printed more and more money to pay what it owed” have not yet come to fruition does not mean they never will. It is perhaps the most significant issue facing younger Americans, yet neither party is interested in crafting solutions to address it.
All of the issues insufficiently addressed by both parties in their conventions amount to a metaphorical anvil hanging over young Americans’ futures. From the coronavirus to social welfare programs to the national debt, neither party has proposed policies that suggest a forward-looking vision. Instead, the parties seem mired in their own internal controversies.
The prioritization of these struggles relentlessly sucks the oxygen out of conversations that could build well-reasoned — even if at odds and in need of negotiation — approaches to the myriad crises the U.S. currently finds itself facing.
Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once famously claimed that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.” The truth to this statement lies in the fact that parties are commonly thought to bring ideas into conflict and achieve consensus to address the pressing issues of the moment. The fact that such a view seems quaint now is one that both Democrats and Republicans should take to heart. Without parties organized around long-term visions of reform, young Americans will be without advocates as the crises being postponed only grow larger and more threatening.