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Harris Viewpoints: Erik Wallenius (CLA'20) on What Was At Stake in 2016 – and Why That Matters in 2020

As a part of Harris Public Policy’s coverage of the 2020 election in conjunction with the Center for Effective Government, we reached out to other experts in the field to share their perspective on the 2020 election. These are their opinions and perspectives, informed by their life experiences and worldviews (and do not necessarily reflect the views of Harris).

A lot of people are calling this election the “most important of our lifetime.” What’s most at stake in this election, and what makes this one different from past ones?

The 2020 election is not the most important election of our lifetimes. The 2016 election was.

This election is our chance to make a number of long-overdue reforms - to the filibuster, to the Supreme Court, to the Electoral College – many of them vestiges of a Constitution drafted by white men who felt comfortable with the idea of treating people as property.

Violent white nationalism was an insecure ideology before 2016. They'd always been with us, but now the adherents know they have a home here. They will be with us for a long time, because the political norms and guardrails that had held them at bay are now broken and shattered in the rearview.

Climate change, which has always threatened to render this planet nearly as uninhabitable as Venus, has been proceeding for decades. But we've never seen before wildfires that cast the rest of the U.S. into a pumpkin orange glow like something out of a sci-fi dystopian vision. Or a global pandemic that is a direct result of too-proximate interactions between humans and wildlife.

The State Department, once the crown jewel of American power, has been virtually hollowed out. The vacuum created by our near-total absence on the world stage has created an opportunity for others that would not have been so complete, if it existed at all. It remains to be seen whether we can reclaim our status as a preeminent superpower – or whether we even deserve it.

We have avoided looking at ourselves in the mirror for far too long. This election will determine if we still believe we have that luxury, or if we're actually going to do the hard work of earning the exceptionalism that we believed we were entitled to. The horse is out of the barn. But this election is our chance to make a better barn. The 2020 election is about whether America can redeem itself.

How might the election (at any level, from the president down to state and local races) impact your work in the Chicago civic space? What, if anything, have you been doing this cycle to make those impacts clear to those you work with?

My boss – Chicago Ald. Michele Smith – is fond of saying that federal policy is truly seen and felt in the departments and agencies that constitute municipal government. The rubber hits the road when it comes to implementation – not just because of unfunded mandates, which get a lot of attention, and deservedly so – but embodied in innumerable head-scratching questions and interpretations, and in contradictory priorities.

And that makes a lot of sense, when you consider one of the most fundamental roles of government is to absorb and reduce uncertainty. After all, it doesn't really matter whether the speed limit is 34 or 36, just so long as there's a decision made to promote one standard that is uniform and predictable.

That's why it is so dangerous to have a federal government that is fueled by (or at least unconcerned with) chaos. Look to our present circumstances: the lack of a unified and coherent response to the pandemic has allowed everyone to hear what they want to hear from their preferred experts. Confirmation bias drives our views on hand-washing, mask-wearing, physical distancing, etc.

The best phrase I've heard to describe our political moment is "epistemological tribalism." If our society considers truth to be a jump ball up for grabs by whichever team you prefer – even if we only mean the tenuous sort of truth described by the scientific method - then we are in much deeper trouble than many of us even realize.

It gives ammunition to what Thrasymachus argued in Plato's Republic: namely, that justice is meaningless and that might makes right. It's not hard to see how a political culture that has spent decades wallowing in moral solipsism can lead very quickly into what Hobbes called "the war of all against all."

Today, the U.S. has 225,000 deaths from COVID-19, and infection rates are climbing steeply. The "long haulers" who survived infection sometimes face an array of secondary costs that we are only just beginning to understand.

All of this is to say that leadership matters. I understand the ways in which asking questions about leadership, or taking the idea of leadership Very Seriously, can feel shameful or ridiculous. It can feel privileged or antiquated or out of touch. But leadership, and its lack, has very real consequences.

In Chapter 7 of the podcast "Caliphate," reporter Rukmini Callimachi interviews a street vendor in Mosul who sold chicken. He shared an anecdote about a customer who received a chicken, but then claimed he could only pay half. This vendor had no hope of recouping the difference, because the price to pay police bribes exceeded the remaining cost. When ISIS arrived, they listened to the street vendor's grievance and got the offending customer to pay up. Similar stories can be told about the irregularity of electricity to homes. Many people did not love the larger political program, but were able to appreciate the stability that ISIS's rule brought to their lives.

I carry that story with me every day: the notion that bland, technocratic, administrative competence could help determine whether people fall under the spell of some radical ideology. Every pothole, every flooded street, every street light out, is an opportunity for people to lose faith in our system. It can mean the difference between a healthy child or a missed job interview. It is my goal to remind our team that, no matter how trivial, our work has an impact on someone's life – even if we never see how or why.

About Erik Wallenius

Erik Wallenius (CLA’20) brings to bear his experiences as an Eagle Scout, Army veteran, and proud South Sider in order to serve the City of Chicago. In his capacity as Chief of Staff to Alderman Michele Smith, Erik oversees the 43rd Ward office and advises on strategic communications, public policy and legislation, housing, infrastructure, development, education, and environmental matters. Prior to this position, Erik had a diverse array of private and public sector management roles across national, state, and local levels. Erik received his BA in Philosophy and Political Science from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He was a member of the 2020 cohort of the Civic Leadership Academy at the Center for Effective Government based at Harris.


The news release above was originally published by the Harris School of Public Policy.