As 2020 dawns, we should note that election years ending in zero have reshaped America in dramatic and lasting ways throughout our history.

Transformational leaders get elected. Profound social, economic, cultural and global changes follow. The consequences last decades.

Go back to the nation’s beginning. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson unseated President John Adams, the Democratic-Republicans upended the Federalists, and what amounted to a second American Revolution unfolded.

Then there was 1860: Abraham Lincoln and Civil War.

In 1900, President William McKinley was forced to take Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate (Republican bosses in New York wanted Roosevelt out of the state). McKinley died, TR became president, and the Progressive Era ensued.

In 1920, the first of three Republican presidents in a row was elected. Americans wanted a return to “normalcy” after World War I and Woodrow Wilson. They got Prohibition, the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression.

In 1940, FDR became the first three-term president. America climbed out of the Depression, won World War II and became a world power. Then came the Cold War, Truman and Eisenhower.

In 1960, JFK promised to get America moving again. We got Camelot, Dallas, Vietnam, the civil rights revolution, more assassinations, riots, and deep social and cultural divisions that live on today. Which led to Nixon, Watergate, Ford, Carter, gas lines, recession and malaise.

1980 brought the Reagan Revolution. Then Clinton Triangulation.

2000 — and the Supreme Court — produced “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush. Also, Dick Cheney, Neocons, 9/11 and wars that still go on. Then came a financial meltdown, deep recession and the first black president. And President Trump.

Brace yourself for 2020.

The year begins with Trump’s impeachment and trial. It will end with the most consequential election of our lifetimes.

Assuming the Senate acquits Trump, he’ll be the first president to run for re-election after being impeached. Some Republicans say Trump is a greater president than Lincoln. He may be the most polarizing president since Lincoln. Trump has even warned of civil war if he loses.

As if politics isn’t bitter enough already.

In 2020 Democrats will make a fundamental decision about their identity: a center-left party or a sharply left party. Will they offer a return to normalcy or a political revolution?

In North Carolina, voters will choose between two starkly different political visions, which trace directly back to another zero-year election that looms large in our state’s history.

That was 1960 and the battle for governor between Democrats Terry Sanford, a progressive, and I. Beverly Lake, a conservative. (Republicans didn’t matter much back then. That changed in the ’60s.)

Lake bitterly opposed desegregation; Sanford was a moderate on race.

Lake supported establishing segregated private schools; Sanford put public schools first.

On economic development, Sanford broke from conservative Democrats, like then-Gov. Luther Hodges. Hodges wanted tax breaks to attract business. Sanford said the state should invest in education, especially teacher pay.

Sanford won in 1960, but the same battles have raged ever since — over race, public versus private schools, and tax breaks versus education.

Govs. Jim Hunt and Roy Cooper came out of the Sanford tradition. Sen. Jesse Helms and today’s Republican legislative leaders came out of the Lake tradition.

In 2020, the battle will be rejoined. Plus, redistricting for the next decade is at stake.

Purists say the next decade doesn’t begin until 2021. In politics, the decade begins now. 2020 will set the direction of North Carolina and the nation for the next 10, 20 and 50 years.

No pressure.

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant and frequent Pilot contributor. He was an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt, 1976-1984 and 1992-2000.

(1) comment

Kent Misegades

Democrat FDR caused the Great Depression. Lincoln was a despot and puppet of Northern industrials, especially the railroads.

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