In my last post, I discussed how and why Covid-19 would change work. You can find it here, but TL;DR: New digital norms will form, permanently imbuing the knowledge economy with a remote-friendly flavor.
It seems equally clear that Covid-19 will have dramatic implications for politics. (After all, the 2008 Financial Crisis brought us the Tea Party, Brexit, and Donald Trump.) But I’ll admit: I have far less confidence in my political predictions than in my ones for work.
I can say what I would like to see happen:
We realize that banks got to seize the meager stimulus checks bearing Trump’s signature while regular people needed to find fax machines to file for unemployment. We get productively angry. Unable to ignore the barbarism of America’s welfare state any longer, we come together to demand a kinder, more humane system. We comprehend that for many people, Covid-19 is not an epochal event, but the latest in a string of bad breaks and injustices that make it impossible for them to gain a foothold in society. We realize that, to save lives, we have demanded sacrifice – economic, emotional, and spiritual sacrifice – from society’s most vulnerable, and that we must repay it, just like we repaid World War II veterans with education and housing. Maybe we even learn (finally and belatedly) that the world is interconnected, and that the healthcare for the immigrant delivering your groceries relates to your child’s health, and that your child’s health relates to the health of the other kids at school, and that the health of the other kids at school relates to society’s future productive potential.
We intuit, all at once, that past divisions were illusory, rooted in a separation of castes that was never just and no longer workable.
I do not think this is what will happen.
The Great Recession is again instructive. At a moment when we should have been angry at banks, a large proportion of society decided to get angry at minority homeowners instead. The Tea Party left a far more lasting mark on US politics than Occupy Wall Street did.
I’m also skeptical because of the candidates we have on offer for 2020. For all of Joe Biden’s good qualities (the main one being that he isn’t Donald Trump), #He’sTheGuy who at numerous points seemed comfortable working with Republicans to cut Social Security. #He’sAlsoTheGuy who attacked the middle class through bankruptcy reform and prevented Anita Hill from getting a fair testimony. He may have genuinely transformed himself into a progressive champion on these and other issues. But there’s a saying about old dogs for a reason – especially when those old dogs tell wealthy donors that, if he were to win, “nothing would fundamentally change.” (To wit: When it became clear that Biden would be the Democratic nominee, shares of health insurance companies spiked.)
The point being: If there were ever a person who could capitalize on the current moment and usher in a better America, he or she would look an awful lot like not-Joe Biden.
And that leaves an opening for what I think – and fear – will happen:
Democrats run against Trump’s xenophobia (“how dare he say Chinese virus!”), as they should. But they fail to give Americans a proactive progressive vision to grab hold of. Trump, meanwhile, does give them something to grab hold of: He revives the Trumpism he ran on in 2016 – social programs are good but only if we build a wall – and despite/because of the xenophobia, Americans re-up, thinking to themselves, “Sure, the first time we got tax breaks for the rich, but maybe this time…” America implements Trumpism in the form of infrastructure and social insurance, but whose use is restricted to a shrinking conception of “we.”
In short, the crisis validates the closed and authoritarian worldview.
(This might be hard for the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” types who populate so many of our superstar cities to believe, but you are outliers. If America ever had a European-style “Blood and Soil + Welfare” Party, it would reign for a thousand years. And if there were ever a crisis to usher in that reign, it’s this one.)
To prevent our politics from becoming even more corrosive than they already are, liberals need to find a post-crisis response that can short-circuit the inevitable reaction coming. Running on a platform of “we also would have allowed banks to seize your stimulus checks, but with slightly more restrictions” won’t cut it.
Making predictions at this point in the crisis is foolish. Every day feels like seventeen weeks. But if I had to put odds on it, I would favor the second scenario, where American society slips ever closer to becoming an installment of The Purge franchise, where the marginalized are made more marginal, and the powerful abscond to vacation homes and working healthcare.
The crisis has reminded society that resources are finite, and that when there aren’t enough ventilators to go around, trade-offs must be made.
That reminder does not often unlock our better angels.
I’ll admit: My pessimistic worldview was shaped by growing up in a crappy area and attending an underfunded public elementary school. While my parents and I had a community of Egyptian immigrants to rely on for support and social nourishment, many of my native-born classmates weren’t so lucky. Their worlds were small, their support systems threadbare. Most never had any chance of ascending beyond their circumstances.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently. In the before time, his kids attended a private pre-school in the Bay Area. Every week, a magician would come to entertain the kids. When I heard this, I found it endlessly funny, because the one time my elementary school had a magician, they called a schoolwide assembly. (It was our only assembly of the year.)
So I guess what I really want is an America where every child can see a magician at school from time to time. And I don’t want to bar people from entering the country to make that happen.
It feels like an impossible dream.
This time, I’m the one left asking: Where do we go from here?