Until recently, there was not much difference between Republicans and Democrats, at least at the national level. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, things changed, as Republicans moved to the right — Democrats to the left.
Fast forward to the 2016 presidential election, following the Obama administration; an administration clearly committed to moving us toward something like a European social welfare state. Donald John Trump understood this, running on the platform of Making America Great Again (MAGA).
Those on the left blasted his program as one of racism, misogyny, homophobia, inequalities of wealth — and all sorts of other socio-economic evils.
Make America Great Again is and was nothing of the sort.
It was actually an exceptionally frank attempt to recall us to our constitutional roots of respect for individual economic choice, separation of governmental powers, and a more limited federal Leviathan.
Barack H. Obama quite candidly had run campaigns based on the notion that it was the job of the federal government to handle the problems of Americans from cradle to grave, but Trump’s supporters, like Ronald Reagan’s, feared big government, and simply sought the power once again to control their own lives.
Our current coronavirus panic will be the template for the next presidential election.
Though things might seem radically changed now — they are not.
The choice between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will eventually be understood as a choice between preserving our constitutional system, essentially as our Framers understood it, and something very different.
That something very different is a central government that claims legitimately to exercise the power to control every aspect of national life, including the making of contracts, the use of private property, the nature of social interaction, and everything else.
Paradoxically, we have had a taste of that for the last six weeks, and with the acquiescence of President Trump himself.
Persuaded by the epidemiologists and their computer models, and their articulate representatives such as Drs. Fauci and Birx, Mr. Trump believed that to avoid the loss of millions of American lives he had no choice but to implement their program of shutting down economic activity, and, essentially quarantining most of the nation.
All this to reduce the incidence of the transmission of COVID-19.
We may now be beginning to understand, however, that these models were flawed, that the virus is far less lethal than we originally believed, and that its destructive power wanes over time whether or not a society takes the economically-destructive measures we took.
We will never know whether these measures actually seriously reduced the harm caused by the virus. But if it turns out that we learn that reliance on scientific experts and their models has costs as well as benefits, and that our experts are no more infallible than the rest of us, we will have gained something valuable indeed.
Much of the philosophy of those who advised shutting down the economy reflected thinking similar to those who have been warning us for decades that if we did not immediately take severe steps to change our way of life, we would very soon ruin our planet’s ecosystem.
Thus, it's now time seriously to ask whether the scientific models behind this way of thinking might be as flawed as the ones that dictated what we have just been through.
Perhaps it's not too much to hope that this upcoming election will be a referendum on whether we seek maximum government to guide us through a perilous future, or whether, instead, we are inclined to rely on the virtues of individual autonomy, individual initiative, and individual responsibility that for so long served us so well.
Mr. Biden would carry on the views of the administration he served as vice president, and could be expected, given the example of what was done during the pandemic, to seek to increase the power of the federal government in general, and the federal bureaucracy especially so.
If Mr. Trump is wise — and he has so far shown an almost uncanny ability to discern the politically brilliant path — he will understand that though it may have been sensible, given how much we didn’t know about COVID-19, to take the steps he was persuaded to take, we have now reached, in his words, the point where the cure is worse than the disease.
If he can now lead the way in reopening the economy, and at the same time, give governors the encouragement and the resources to make decisions on their own about the best way to bring back the businesses and the social lives of their own states, he can once again run on a platform of reinforcing classic American values and traditional constitutional government.
Americans can then choose for themselves what future they desire.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. Read Stephen B. Presser's Reports — More Here.
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