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Column: Our next president has an urgent agenda

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 11/14/2020 10:10:18 PM
Modified: 11/14/2020 10:10:07 PM

As I write this, the incumbent president is still contesting the results of the election and has gone to the courts with unsubstantiated allegations of fraud. The outcome will not be official for several weeks. In the meantime, we know that the incoming president faces immediate, vexing problems, and we also know that solving them will not be easy given a divided Congress, which seems likely, and a divided nation, which has never been more apparent.

Urgent short-term problems include the pandemic and the job losses it created, particularly in the retail and travel sectors. Important long-term problems include climate change, economic and racial inequality and injustice, and the country’s eroding infrastructure. And looming over everything right now are the potential loss of health care for millions should the Supreme Court overturn the Affordable Care Act, the massive loss of state and local tax revenues that will imperil public sector jobs and services, and the yawning deficit that could place several longstanding and wildly popular federal programs in jeopardy.

These problems can only be solved at the federal level. And because the public’s confidence in the federal government is at or near an all-time low, we find ourselves in a stuck in a vicious cycle: We need a more effective federal government but are unwilling to commit the funds and staffing required to put one in place. This vicious cycle is reinforced when gridlock persists, when personalities dominate the news cycle and when “trusted” news outlets emphasize divisiveness over unity.

Our current president has done little to restore the trust in government at the federal level, in large measure because he does not value the deliberative process of democracy, takes great pride in his alleged prowess as a businessman, and touts the fact that he is “not a politician.” But the country’s urgent problems cannot be resolved without engaging in politics, which the late British political theorist Bernard Crick defined as “a distinctive form of rule whereby people act together through institutionalized procedures to resolve differences, to conciliate diverse interests and values and to make public policies in the pursuit of common purposes.”

We New Englanders who live in towns and villages understand the value of politics and appreciate and respect the elected officials who engage in political problem-solving on our behalf. Nonpartisan selectboards and school boards “conciliate diverse interests and values” when they deliberate on their policies and develop their budgets, knowing that the voters will make the ultimate decisions on spending and services at annual town meetings, where everyone’s voice can be heard and everyone’s vote count. In addition, we New Englanders have many opportunities to discuss contentious issues with local decision-makers. We cross paths with them at the dump and the store as well as in town hall. We know them as human beings and know they are doing their best to balance our interests with those of our neighbors.

New England’s nonpartisan politics carry through to the state level. Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts are led by Republican governors who, in the past two years, needed to develop budgets and legislative agendas that passed muster in legislatures controlled by Democrats. To date, despite some flirtations with Tea Party partisanship in New Hampshire and a populist governor in Maine, New England politics largely mirror the civil, conciliatory and nonpartisan approach townspeople expect at the local level. Because we appreciate the need to practice “small p” politics, we New Englanders also appreciate the need to compromise and seek outside advice to help guide us on particularly difficult decisions.

If the urgent problems facing the country could be solved using the approach taken at the local or state levels in New England, I would feel more confident about the future.

The management of the pandemic is a case in point. New England’s Republican governors listened to medical experts and developed state-level guidelines regarding masks, social distancing, travel and reopening schools and businesses. They respected epidemiological expertise and supported informed recommendations. Their message of “we’re all in this together” had a calming effect, and in their forums on the pandemic they acknowledged the hardships and challenges we all faced and urged us to follow their guidelines to ensure the well-being of our neighbors. That message penetrated to the local level, where selectboards and school boards deliberated on tough decisions as they dealt with the pandemic. Consequently, even with the recent upward trends, New England states continue to experience the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the nation and have seen minimal pushback from those who object to regulations stemming from the pandemic.

The country’s challenges will require political leadership that relies on “institutionalized procedures to resolve differences.” Sadly, for the past 10 years, that kind of leadership has been nonexistent in Washington. To make matters more dire, the “institutionalized procedures” designed to resolve differences and solve complicated and contentious problems have been hijacked by a partisan lust for political power. Finger-pointing, name-calling and blaming in order to gain or hold power undercuts our ability to self-govern. When that capacity disappears, democracy disappears with it.

My hope is that Washington will look to New England’s problem-solving approach as a model. Instead of viewing politics as a means of gaining the upper hand for their political party, political leaders in Washington should use politics to offer a helping hand to as many constituents as possible. Doing that will require both parties to compromise, and those compromises will be as unsettling to voters in both parties as the ones we are making now to keep COVID-19 at bay. Ultimately, living in a democracy requires compromise, and compromises require some level of sacrifice. Having had a taste of what anti-democratic leadership looks like, I’m prepared make some necessary sacrifices.

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.

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