Opinion pages are starting to focus on what the world will look like after the pandemic. Wishful thinking, since we are still in the thick of things, but yearning for renewal comes easier around the spring equinox when we literally turn toward the light; Easter, channeling its pagan spring festival antecedents’ theme of rebirth; and Passover, embodying the notion of deliverance from oppression.
But, as Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in The New York TImes on ‘The Ideas That Won’t Survive the Coronavirus’, “Even if America as we know it survives the coronavirus, it can hardly emerge unscathed. ” For Nguyen, our collective near-fatal experience can disabuse us of the illusion of invincibility rooted in ‘the hearty good cheer’ of American exceptionalism, unmasking the symptoms of the social virus with which America is afflicted – ‘inequality, callousness, selfishness and a profit motive that undervalues human life and overvalues commodities’. Perhaps the sensation of imprisonment during quarantine can facilitate empathy with real imprisonment, confinement in refugee and detention camps which are de facto prisons, and the economic imprisonment of ‘poverty and precariousness’ where many live paycheck to paycheck and ‘where illness without health insurance can mean death.’ Nguyen can only note the hope that imprisonment often radicalizes and births new consciousnesses.
As a writer, Nguyen hopes that our struggle with the pandemic may echo the archetypical ‘hero’s journey’ in which a struggle with a truly monstrous ‘worthy opponent’ creates fundamental transformation. The hero is the body politic, the opponent not Covid–19 (‘which, however terrible, is only a movie villain’) but our response, shaped by the structural inequalities of our society, e.g. a government prioritizing the protection of the least vulnerable. And, of course, our response to the coronavirus pandemic is merely a template for the final battle — climate catastrophe. ‘If our fumbling of the coronavirus is a preview of how the United States will handle that disaster, then we are doomed.’
‘But amid the bumbling, there are signs of hope and courage: laborers striking over their exploitation; people donating masks, money and time; medical workers and patients expressing outrage over our gutted health care system; a Navy captain sacrificing his career to protect his sailors; even strangers saying hello to other strangers on the street, which in my city, Los Angeles, constitutes a nearly radical act of solidarity.’
The question of which ideas have survived once we make it through the crisis is one of ‘which story will let the survivors truly live.’
Paul Krugman writes about how the pandemic is hastening the death of American democracy, reflecting on the Wisconsin election this week where the Supreme Court required in-person voting despite the epidemic, and where many who requested absentee ballots never received them. ‘[D]emocracy, once lost, may never come back. And we’re much closer to losing our democracy than many people realize.’
He draws parallels to Hungary over the past decade ‘to see how a modern democracy can die.’ Beginning in 2011 that country’s white nationalist ruling party essentially made its rule permanent by rigging the electoral system and consolidated its control by suppressing independent news media, rewarding friendly business interests and punishing critics. [Sound familiar?] Until recently, such ‘soft authoritarianism’ was as far as it went, ‘neutralizing and punishing opposition without actually making criticism illegal.’ But the coronavirus crisis has been used as an excuse to abandon even the pretense of constitutional government and give Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree.
‘If you say that something similar can’t happen here, you’re hopelessly naïve. In fact, it’s already happening here, especially at the state level. Wisconsin, in particular, is well on its way toward becoming Hungary on Lake Michigan, as Republicans seek a permanent lock on power.’
The parallel process of consolidation of power, suppression of opposition, and rigging of the electoral process underway in Wisconsin for the past two years culminated in Tuesday’s election. The Democratic primary was a moot point with Biden the de facto candidate, but a seat on the State Supreme Court was also at stake. And the insistence on a ‘normal’ election disproportionately suppressed turnout in Democratic-leaning urban areas as opposed to Republican-heavy rural and suburban areas.
‘So the state G.O.P. was nakedly exploiting a pandemic to disenfranchise those likely to vote against it. What we saw in Wisconsin, in short, was a state party doing whatever it takes to cling to power even if a majority of voters want it out — and a partisan bloc on the Supreme Court backing its efforts.’
As I pointed out in an earlier post here, ‘Donald Trump, as usual, said the quiet part out loud: If we expand early voting and voting by mail, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” ’ Does anyone doubt that the same thing could happen, sooner rather than later, at the national level? The prospect of Trump gaining a second term by using voter suppression to eke out an Electoral College win is very real. And, if he does, Krugman finds it likely he will ‘do a full Hungary.’ And, if he loses, would the GOP and Fox News support his likely contention that Biden’s victory was based on voter fraud?
‘[W]hat just happened in Wisconsin …shows that one of our two major parties simply doesn’t believe in democracy. Authoritarian rule may be just around the corner.’
Jamelle Bouie agrees that ‘Trump Wants 50 Wisconsins on Election Day,’ with a more detailed examination of how the state’s GOP pulled off its subversion of a free and fair electoral process and why it mattered so much.
‘Wisconsin Republicans will do anything to protect their hold on the reins, especially when that power has national implications. Wisconsin is a tipping point state in the upcoming presidential election, and a party that controls the rules of the game is one that can put its thumb on the scale for its allies.’
He too points to the extraordinary admission by Trump that his side will lose if every eligible person who wants to vote can cast a ballot. But this is not merely Trump’s demagoguery; the Republican Party in general agrees that it is impossible to persuade a majority of voters to support their agenda in the court of public opinion, so instead they have decided to rig the court itself.
Timothy Egan sounds a more hopeful note, observing that some of the greatest advances in American history were birthed by disaster, citing Emancipation, Social Security, and robust clean air and water mandates.
One prospect is for a government-run health care system for all.
’When even the most dreadful Republicans — but I repeat myself — say that virus testing and treatment should be free, the door has opened to the obvious next step. Since the outbreak, one in four Republicans have suddenly come around to some version of what most nations already have.
Now, try running for office on a platform of taking away people’s health care. Or tolerating the condition that leaves nearly 28 million Americans with no health care at all. Yep, that’s the current Republican policy, led by President Trump’s attempt to gut Obamacare through the courts. Good luck with that in November.’
In the area of employment policy, ‘progressive pipe dreams’ like paid family leave, working from home, universal sick leave, subsidized day care, and a liveable minimum wage, all seem more plausible all of a sudden. And, given that Covid–19 death are disproportionately related to diet-related impairments of health, we have the opportunity to make some structural changes in the food system. He lists universal free school meals; allowing the >40 million Americans receiving food stamps to shop online and get their groceries delivered like everyone else; standardizing food labelling so that “expired” food that is perfectly safe to eat can be used by food banks; and remedying the harrassment and demeaning of farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants.
Cleaner air appears to be a momentary byproduct of people working at home, bolstered by the projected decrease in emissions to come from our virus-connected economic downturn (although we need to worry about the stimulus to consumption from crashing oil prices). But a lasting influence on the trajectory of climate change will require more global change.
‘We have only a few years to save ourselves from ourselves. Our trashed and overheated world is a slower pandemic. The good news is that, even with the crash in oil prices, renewable energy use is on an upward course. Coal is yesterday, no matter how much Trump tries to promote it and China drags its heels. More than anything, the pandemic has shown how quickly things can change if they must. Carpe diem.’