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What Political Issues Will Be Important to Americans in 2021 and Beyond?

As we enter a new year and think beyond it, to the 2022 midterm election and another presidential race in 2024 (believe it or not, it’s sooner than you think!), here’s something worth pondering: what’s really important to Americans these days, besides, of course, eradicating Covid from the planet?

The 2020 presidential election was one of the most contentious in modern history, and in the minds of tens of millions of Americans, it’s not over yet. A very large chunk of the country is breathing a sigh of relief that Donald Trump, a man they consider to be a reckless, unhinged narcissist (not to mention racist, sexist, xenophobe, Russian puppet and fan of dictators in general, if you really want to get to the heart of Trump Derangement Syndrome) is finally about to be pried from the controls of government just in the nick of time before he destroys America beyond repair. Roughly another similar-sized chunk believes that Trump was our nation’s last, best hope to stand up to the major party establishment duopoly and worse yet, according to the more extreme disestablishmentarians, he’s been the only chance America has to survive a complete breakdown of its culture and very fiber, due to an internationally organized radical movement to take over the world and establish a single leftist totalitarian government. Then, there are those who don’t see things so dire one way or the other. Nonetheless, all three have more in common than they realize, and that is lack of interest in the things that used to matter to the American people.

In the mid-1990s, a very smart and well-educated colleague with whom I often bantered in an intense but always cordial and friendly manner about politics (she was a big fan of President Clinton, whereas I was searching for the next Ronald Reagan) told me that foreign policy really didn’t matter any longer. “We won the Cold War, it’s over now,” she said, in response to my criticizing what I considered to be Clinton’s overemphasis on domestic affairs. I thought of that recently, in light of the fact that Trump brokered three – count ‘em, three – peace deals between Israel and other Middle Eastern nations. Jimmy Carter negotiated just one (Israel-Egypt) during his presidency, and no one’s even done as much in almost half a century. Yet, when folks point out Carter’s ineffective record as president – stagflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis come to mind – he’s thought of as the great exalted peacemaker. Yet, Trump’s accomplishments are buried in journalism’s growing ash heap of facts and truth. Tempting though it might be to chalk this up to more TDS, it’s not as simple as that. Americans simply don’t care about things like peace in the Middle East nearly as much as they used to, regardless of who’s president.

So as not to skew the results in the age of Covid, let’s turn to a Gallup poll taken last January, a few weeks before the virus had really hit home here. Only 21 percent of respondents thought Foreign Affairs was of high importance. Among Republican respondents, it was as low as 15 percent.

The big ticket items were healthcare, terrorism, guns, and education. Granted, all very important topics, but other issues were cast aside, like immigration – which arguably catapulted Trump to victory in 2016 not just against Hillary Clinton but against 16 other Republican challengers. Only 28 percent of Democrats, 26 percent of Independents and, get ready for this, just 30 percent of Republicans thought immigration was a highly important issue.

Even lower on the list was the federal deficit; poor Ross Perot must be rolling in his grave. It is no wonder, then, that our Treasury has given a whole new meaning to the term Easy Money in 2020, to that point that not even Bernie Sanders or Andrew Yang would dare even dream about.

It is entirely understandable – and I join in the sentiment – that until COVID is out of our lives, it will consume our thoughts like no other issue. “When things get back to normal” is at the top of the wish list. That’s why I’m leaving Covid out of the equation and focusing on life immediately preceding it, considering it a barometer by which to predict future priorities in its immediate aftermath.

Assuming there are no last-minute consequences of historically unprecedented magnitude, Joe Biden will be sworn in as America’s 46th president in a couple of weeks. A stark difference between Biden and Trump is temperament. Despite Biden’s tendency to make gaffes – arguably exacerbated over the past couple of years – he won’t inspire furious backlash the way Trump does. Therefore, without COVID and without a flame-fanning tweeter-in-chief, what will Americans care about most?

Our Army recently reported that it developed a cannon that hit its target 43-and-a-half miles away. That places us at an even greater advantage should we have to face another country in ground battle. Although such a possibility seems rather remote, what’s really scary is that far too large a segment of the population, if asked to consider what our federal government ought to spend money on, may very well forget about the military budget entirely. Out of sight, out of mind.

Do Americans care about Congress and the media? They sure do speak lowly of them, according to Gallup (and several other polls). As Trump’s approval ratings hovered in the low 40 percent range over the past four years, Congress barely broke 20. As for the media, 33 percent have zero trust in them, 27 percent not very much, 31 percent a fair amount, and just 9 percent a great deal. Why, then, does neither of these issues even make the “most important” list? Do we think of these two societal foundations as irrelevant, or have we resigned ourselves to hopelessness in terms of fixing them? It’s something to think about this year.

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