- - Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The 2020 presidential election cycle has consumed Americans and rightfully so, given the crises that have unfolded this year — an unrelenting pandemic that’s taken lives and livelihoods, riots and looting in cities and suburbs, and devastating hurricanes and wildfires.

Yet, it’s just as important to look beyond who holds the keys to the White House and to focus on opportunities to strengthen and revitalize America’s institutions.

Yes, our president holds tremendous power and authority — but it’s state and local governments and the institutions of civil society that have a greater impact on our daily lives. Further, this election has reaffirmed that citizens still believe in the principles of American exceptionalism.

On these points, the center-right has much to build upon.  

Despite the widespread prediction of a “blue wave,” Republicans held on to state legislatures and governorships. While the media didn’t widely cover it, Republicans picked up 186 seats in state houses and will control at least 59 of the 98 partisan chambers next year. Even though national groups on the left spent $28 million more than those on the right, only two chambers in the country changed control and that was to Republicans.   

Another underreported story was the strong performance of conservatives in governors’ races. All six incumbent Republican governors up for reelection won, and the governor’s mansion in Montana will now be occupied by a conservative for the first time in 20 years. A majority of states will continue to be led by chief executives who champion liberty.

As we’ve seen this past year, leadership in the states matters more than ever. An extraordinary aspect of the pandemic has been how state and local decisions have immensely affected our lives. Everything from mask mandates, to the opening of schools and businesses, to whether we can worship in church has been determined by state and local public officials.

With a gridlocked federal government, it will continue to be incumbent upon these officials to provide effective leadership. This is federalism at work — which is precisely what the Founders intended. Problems are best solved by the governments and private voluntary organizations closest to the people, not an unwieldy bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. 

No state has perfected the response to COVID, but some have led by example, proving that states really are the laboratories of democracy. Learning pods, the expansion of health care access through telehealth, free testing sites and regional alliances are all reflective of innovative and practical solutions adopted at local and state levels. 

The election of more liberty-oriented legislators to state houses will increase the likelihood of measured approaches to the pandemic that balance health and safety with the need to protect jobs and strengthen the economy. 

Indeed, the value that citizens place on a strong economy is another signal of support for the principles of American exceptionalism. The free market system clearly triumphed this election, despite a strong push by the progressive left to advance a blatantly socialist agenda. 

The fact that a majority of Cuban-Americans and an increasing number of voters from other Latino groups in Florida chose center-right candidates makes the point. These voters fled socialist regimes for a reason and don’t want to see the same mistake repeated in this country.

Likewise, conservatives made significant inroads among Hispanic voters in Texas, particularly along the border. Nationally, President Trump improved his performance with Hispanics overall by 4%. The president also made modest gains among Black voters. 

The former mayor of Rio Grande City summarized it best in The Wall Street Journal when describing the reason for the shift in his county: “It’s jobs, jobs, jobs.” 

That sentiment is supported by an ABC News/Washington Post poll released just prior to the election. Voters who said the economy was their top issue favored Trump 80%-18%. “Eighty-something percent in the exit polls said they trusted Donald Trump more on the economy than they trusted the Democrats. That’s a sobering, shocking statistic,” Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat, said in a post-election interview.

But it shouldn’t be.

Throughout America’s history, the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the reason millions of people have risked everything to become citizens here. The United States will remain a beacon of hope and a place where anyone can achieve success beyond all dreams — but only if our policies continue to support economic freedom.

So while conservatives should vigorously fight for free and fair elections and care deeply about who is president, let’s also stay focused on advancing federalism, free enterprise, educational opportunity and strengthening civil society. These are the principles and institutions of American exceptionalism that must not and cannot waver.

• Richard W. Graber is president and chief executive officer of The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. 

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