How Coronavirus Could Help Heal Our Democracy

A global pandemic presents the ultimate test of government’s most basic function: to solve large, collective problems and safeguard our society.  

The United States failed that test in both our preparation and our immediate response –– as our polarized politics yet again unnecessarily paralyzed us. As a result, over 100,000 Americans have died so far, and more than 35 million are now out of work. What steps we take from here, however, may help us minimize the long-term impact and avert the next crisis.

Pandemics are predictable. So are severe weather effects of climate change. So are skyrocketing interest payments from a growing national debt. Yet, our politics are often focused on the here and now because we spend more time fighting each other to win the next election than working with each other to solve long-term problems.

The consequence is that by the time we need to act to address inevitable crises, we’re only left with bad options –– like making tradeoffs between protecting our health and reopening our economy.

Pandemics are not partisan. Neither is designing an immigration system that is both compassionate and fair. Or a health care system that is both adequate and affordable. Yet our politics are so often polarized between extreme positions because both parties treat every issue as zero-sum: for one side to win, the other must lose.

The result is dueling realities in which we cannot make rational judgments based on a shared set of facts. According to a CNN poll in May, 71% of Republicans believe the worst of the pandemic is behind us, while 74% of Democrats believe the worst is yet to come. Up is down. Down is up.

Some of the steps we must take to respond to today’s public health crisis will be just as powerful in treating the underlying ailments in our democracy long-term.

First, we must protect the integrity of our elections by allowing any voter to securely cast a ballot from the safety of their own home by voting absentee, by mail. Postponing the November presidential election –– as over 20 states have done with their primaries –– is not an option. Congress must act in the next stimulus to provide states with additional funding to ensure preparations are made to expand access to mail ballots for all voters.

The bonus is that full “vote at home” systems whereby every voter is automatically mailed a ballot –– already in place in five states –– strengthen election security, decrease election administration costs, and increase informed voter participation. Mail ballots are utilized roughly evenly by Democrats and Republicans alike; it’s time to make them a national norm.

Second, we must leverage millions of young Americans’ desire to help and need for work by connecting them with stipend-based volunteer opportunities to support the most vulnerable among us –– from supporting contact tracing to delivering meals to senior citizens. As generations past have responded to large threats through military service, this is a new generation’s opportunity to rise to the occasion in new ways.

Long-term, expanded national service opportunities can help reweave our frayed social fabric across growing geographic, demographic, and economic fault lines. Last month, a final report from a congressionally chartered commission on public service advocated scaling the current 75,000 federally supported national service-year opportunities to 1 million by 2031. It’s time to make national service a civic rite of passage for all young Americans.

Third, in this year’s elections, we must vote for leaders in both political parties who are equipped to lead in challenging times and treat politics as true public service. That means voting out those who have failed to adequately respond to this crisis and, especially, those who looked after their own self-interest and bottom lines before even alerting the public to the full danger that was to come.

 As the pandemic is demonstrating, one’s ideology and party ought not to be the only qualification to hold office. Pursuing evidence-based policy matters. Putting country over party matters. Truth matters. These are the qualities that can really make a difference –– when it really matters. It’s time to support leaders in both parties who are, first and foremost, willing and able to lead.

The best way out of our current crisis is to simultaneously help prevent the next one –– by improving our democracy and fostering a much healthier body politic. 

Nick Troiano is executive director of Unite America, which aims to bridge the partisan divide by enacting non-partisan election reforms and electing pro-reform candidates to office.

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