And their suggestions as to what it will demand of us shed light on their differences — both on their diverging readings of what this era is inflicting on the country and what will be needed to repair it.
For instance, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., invited listeners to “picture what it’s going to be like” after Trump is gone, then said:
It starts out feeling like a happy thought. This particular brand of chaos and corruption will be over. But really think about where we’ll be: vulnerable, even more torn apart by politics than we are right now. And these big issues from the economy to climate change have not taken a vacation during the impeachment process. I’m running to be the president who can turn the page and unify a dangerously polarized country while tackling those issues that are going to be just as urgent then as they are now.
For Buttigieg, it’s largely a matter of “turning the page” on the Trump era. Elsewhere he’s used the metaphor of “changing the channel” away from this “horror show.” After this, Buttigieg promises to heal the country’s divisions while also getting to work on its challenges.
But in spite of his recognition that we face “big issues,” for Buttigieg, this need for healing actually argues for tempering our policy ambitions. Buttigieg basically said just this, noting that we should not attempt Medicare-for-all because after Trump, our country will be “horrifyingly polarized,” and expanding Medicare voluntarily can achieve universal health care without further exacerbating that polarization.
In short: Too much ambition means more division, and we’ve already got as much of that as we can take.
It’s hard to overstate how fundamentally different a reading that is from that offered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). She declared that the only way Democrats can beat Trump is by “addressing head-on” the fact that “the wealthy and the well-connected have captured our democracy,” adding:
People in our own party don’t want to admit that. They think that running some kind of vague campaign that nibbles around the edges of big problems in this country is a winning strategy. They are wrong. If all Democrats can promise is after Donald Trump it will be business as usual, then we will lose. Democrats win when we call out what’s broken and we show how to fix it. ... Democrats will win when we give people a reason to get in the fight.
That’s a fairly direct indictment of the caution offered by Buttigieg — and Joe Biden, whose agenda is somewhat more liberal than is commonly acknowledged, but who nonetheless is making his No. 1 mission to “restore” the country’s unity after Trump’s racism tore it apart.
In Warren’s diagnosis, the problem is oligarchic capture of our political economy. It isn’t just that vowing to genuinely take on this capture is necessary to mobilize the grass-roots energy to defeat Trump but also that it threatens to persist as a defining feature of the After Trump era.
Over and over, Warren says shrinking from “big fights” is the wrong thing to be signaling an intention to do — contra Buttigieg, the prospect of deep divisions after Trump calls for more ambitious reform efforts. Thus Warren proposes deep reforms to rid Washington of corruption and to restructure the economy.
If anything, Bernie Sanders went even more decisively in that direction. He argued that the way to end the “hatred” and “division” inflicted on the country by Trump is with …
… an agenda that works for every man, woman, and child in this country rather than the corporate elite and the 1 percent. A progressive agenda that stands for all is the way that we transform this country.
Transforming the country, Sanders noted, means dealing with the stark facts that “87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured,” that “half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck” and that we face “the existential threat of climate change.”
It’s often suggested that the fundamental divide among Democrats is between those who see Trump as merely a passing aberration — after which something resembling normalcy can be restored — and those who see him as a symptom of much more deeply rooted systemic problems with our economy and democracy.
But the divide might be better expressed this way: It’s between those who think the deep ferment of the moment calls for a combination of some sort of unspecified unifying salve and a promise of minimal post-Trump disruption, and those who see it as an opportunity — to jolt Americans into an awareness that things are so badly off track that we need to reach for something much bigger.