2020 Election sparks possibility for swift reform

“This is going to be an intergenerationally defining election,” Derek Heath, debate coach and government teacher, predicted.

Over the decades, many problems and issues have built up in the United States, with reform being slow and uneven. The COVID-19 pandemic has done much to expose these issues and bring them to the light. The 2020 election between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden could represent a tipping point of those issues crashing down at once, resulting in massive change.

The United States is, to put it mildly, dealing with a lot right now: a global pandemic, rising white supremacy, police brutality, enormous protests across the country, a divisive and hotly contested presidential election, severe inequalities of income and opportunity, and more. While some of these issues are recent, many more have been going on for years, if not decades. 

One of the significant inhibitors of radical change in the United States is what experts call institutional inertia. According to a scientific paper in the Wiley Online Library, institutional inertia describes the tendency of institutions, or organizations of people, to act slowly and resist change. This concept is evident throughout the United States. Our bicameral legislature, composed of hundreds of members, makes it difficult to pass laws. The process for amending the Constitution has a very high threshold. Current partisanship makes compromising difficult. Even if we could not name it, we have noticed this institutional inertia in our daily lives.

Heath explains what makes this election different: “None of the things that the United States is facing are unprecedented. None of them are necessarily existential threats in it of themselves. We’ve dealt with a rising tide of white supremacy in the United States before. We’ve dealt with anti-democratic illiberal fascist movements in the United States before. We’ve dealt with rising levels of income inequality and Gilded-Age-type policies before. We’ve dealt with pandemics before. We’ve dealt with a collapsing world order before. […] What we haven’t done is deal with all these things simultaneously.”

Institutional inertia can often be like a dam stopping the flow of change. With so many issues in the United States becoming more dire and more visible, especially as the pandemic has worsened many of them, it’s putting a lot of pressure on the dam. If the dam does indeed burst under the pressure, the flow of changes could be very large.

 “When that tidal wave of necessary change finally overcomes the inertial resistance,” Heath said,  “[there] tends to be radical, real quick type changes.”

There have been previous presidential elections that were expected to produce significant change but did not live up to the hype.

According to Dr. Jack Miller, a political science professor at Portland State University, significant change was expected after the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama was elected. With the first African American president and a possible new face of the Democratic Party, such change seemed to be on the horizon. 

However, due to a majority Republican congress being elected a mere two years later, only a few of the proposed reforms were put in place, such as the Affordable Care Act. A similar situation could occur for 2020: an oppositional congress is elected in the next two years, and significant change fades away.

It is also very possible that 2020 could be the precursor, or perhaps the catalyst, to the election that really gets change going.

As Heath explained, “It’s possible that the election of 2024, or the midterm elections of 2022, or the midterm elections of 2026, are the ones that 100 years from now are [looked back at as] the paradigm shifting [election].”