WATCH: Brookings scholars address 21st-century policy issues ahead of 2020

People watch Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speak during her campaign kick off event in New York, New York, U.S., March 24, 2019.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RC137D9D5970

As the 2020 election nears, candidates and voters have begun to debate the major governance and policy issues facing the nation. On June 10, the Governance Studies program at Brookings hosted the tenth annual A. Alfred Taubman Forum on Public Policy to explore some of these problems and ways to address them. The first panel, which focused on governance reform, included Governance Studies scholars Sarah Binder, John Hudak, Elaine Kamarck, and Vanessa Williamson. The second panel, focusing on policy reform, featured Michael Hansen, Makada Henry-Nickie, Margaret Taylor, and Jon Valant. Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies, moderated both discussions.

Threats to the integrity of US elections

Kamarck and Taylor each focused on threats to the integrity of the 2020 election, including foreign interference and cybersecurity challenges. Addressing the dangers of false information in campaigns, Kamarck warned not only of tactics used by foreign actors but also of “dirty tricks” used by candidates themselves, which differ from traditional attack advertisements. “There’s a certain percentage of things that are attack ads, contrast ads, but not necessarily dirty tricks. Dirty tricks deal in absolutely false information,” she stated. “Dirty tricks … don’t have to convince everyone,” she added, “they just have to convince a sliver in very, very tight races.”

Kamarck also noted that an important obstacle to addressing the problem of foreign interference and the spread of false information is the short time period in which a campaign operates. “I think that ultimately our only defense here is actually a sophisticated citizenry. A citizenry that is good at being a little bit skeptical about claims that are really nuts,” she stated.

In the second panel, Taylor highlighted three challenges that she believes are central to the integrity of U.S. elections. First, Taylor pointed to vulnerabilities in America’s election infrastructure. She noted, “There’s a little line in the Mueller report that basically says that Russia was in a position … to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government.” Second, she called for equipping citizens with digital competence and media literacy, so that they can better protect themselves online, noting that we ought to take lessons from certain Northern European governments who have done this particularly well. Lastly, she argued that policymakers must do a better job of reinforcing the norm that foreign interference does indeed undermine U.S. democracy.

Aside from concerns about threats online, Williamson addressed the issue of voter suppression and the ways in which it undermines elections. “One of the most critical issues facing the United States is the very fundamental idea of our democracy: That is to say, the right of citizens to offer their views in the context of voting … It is genuinely very troubling that we live in a country where who is a citizen is the subject of contestation, who actually gets to participate is the subject of contestation,” she said. To address this issue, she highlighted her 2018 Filer Voter experiment in Texas and Ohio, which aimed to make voter registration easier by offering taxpayers the option to register while filing their tax returns.

The effects of partisanship on governance and immigration policy

Several scholars also addressed the nation’s current political polarization and its effects on governance. Binder explained how, since the 1970s, certain barriers have emerged that have made it much more difficult for Congress and the White House to achieve policy goals. “We’re stuck today in a very different partisan, electoral, and constitutional context, so the barriers are really quite steep here. The question is ultimately: Are there issues on which there are divisions within the Republican Party where they are willing to break with the president? Trade, tariffs—that appears to be the closest we are getting.”

Hudak focused on the effect of this gridlock on one of the most polarizing issues in America: immigration policy. He argued that the Trump administration’s policies, including the construction of a border wall and the humanitarian crisis at the border, have deepened polarization around this issue among the public and members of Congress. Hudak called for a “policy reset” on immigration. First, the administration should “realize that what they are doing is not working, both from a policy perspective and from a political perspective.” It should then begin to work seriously with Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, he said. “Until that day comes,” he continued, “immigration policy will remain a failure in the United States, and that failure will rest at the feet of the individual who ran a campaign saying he would fix it.”

Protecting consumers in a sophisticated technology landscape

Henry-Nickie focused on the challenges faced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, after former acting Director Mick Mulvaney’s repeal of certain regulations designed to protect consumers. She outlined the growing need to protect vulnerable consumer populations—like communities of color and low-income individuals—from the discriminatory use of big data. Specifically, she recommended an integrated policy approach between the Federal Trade Commission and the CFPB to “put our consumer protection framework back together.”

Addressing inequalities in public education

Also in the second panel on policy reforms, the scholars discussed some of the shortcomings of the U.S. education system. Focusing on K-12 education, Valant warned of large achievement gaps between students of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds, the shifting politics around charter schools, and the deprioritization of “democratic skills” in favor of core academic knowledge. Last, he explained how policy reforms outside the realm of education can improve students’ experiences in the classroom, such as alleviating child poverty and improving access to affordable housing.

Later in the discussion, Hansen introduced a solution to address two public education issues simultaneously: low teacher pay and college affordability. Hansen’s proposal would offer more significant loan forgiveness to teachers in order to alleviate some of the profession’s financial burdens and incentivize more college students to become educators. “For many teachers, their take-home pay has been declining in real value,” he said. “There’s also declining interest in the teaching profession as a whole.” He argued that his proposal would bolster outcomes for students of color by making the teacher workforce more diverse, while also supporting early childhood education programs that are popular among Democratic policymakers.

The full event audio and video are available on the event’s webpage.

Sophie Durham and Betsy Broaddus made significant contributions to this post.