On March 30, during one of the daily briefings on the COVID-19 outbreak that had so captured the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, Governor Andrew Cuomo uttered a sentence that would soon become his veritable mantra: “This is no time for politics.”
It was a nice sentiment, but a meaningless one—everything is politics and politics is everything. In each great world crisis, the shape of things to come is fast upon us before the crisis is even over. Already, the worst among us are hard at work exploiting our national agony for brand building and political advancement. Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, famous TV quacks, have dismissed the number of expected deaths; Southern governors have scurried about to reopen tattoo parlors; Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman has offered up her city as a control group; and much of Fox News was plugging hydroxychloroquine as a wonder drug—until military veterans who took it started dropping dead of heart attacks.
President Trump, unsurprisingly, wasted no time politicizing the pandemic—deflecting blame, aggrandizing himself, and rewriting the past. Not only has Trump used the moment to fire the whistleblowers who tried to bring him to justice at his impeachment trial, he also fired a newly appointed watchdog, the Pentagon inspector general Glenn A. Fine, who was supposed to oversee $2.2 trillion in coronavirus-relief spending. It was as audacious a preemptive move as has ever been seen in the annals of presidential corruption.
Using cover provided by the crisis, the president has also rolled back or weakened auto emissions standards and environmental regulations. He has attempted to establish previously unheard-of levels of presidential authority by threatening to adjourn Congress, and brazenly redirected scarce medical supplies to states that he is most worried about carrying in November. Probing, always probing for weak spots in our civil society, Trump has also suggested that he has “total” authority over the states and on Twitter urged his supporters to take to the streets, telling them to “save your great 2nd Amendment.” So they did, assault rifles and children in hand, screaming obscenities and trying to block hospital entrances.
Far from voicing concern about Trump’s provocations, nearly all his fellow Republicans have rallied to his side. Attorney General William Barr has threatened legal action against states that maintain lockdowns. Republicans in twelve states have clamped down on abortion access. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has labeled relief efforts “blue state bailouts,” and suggested that particularly affected states ought to declare bankruptcy (an idea that, as a prescription for immediate world financial collapse, is elegant in its simplicity). Republicans will likely take to the courts to keep people from voting by mail in November, much as they did before the Wisconsin primary, an action that almost certainly led to voter deaths. Trump and congressional Republicans appear to be so afraid of mail-in ballots that they are even ready to let the U.S. Postal Service go bust.
What Republicans would like to get out of this crisis is clear enough. It’s what the party always wants: money and power. And they are quite willing to snap the tendons of American democracy in order to get it. But what about the rest of us? What should we want out of this crisis? What should we demand?
It is tempting to encourage cities and more liberal regions of America to retreat into their own enclaves, to insulate themselves from the provocateur in chief and his sycophants. But the Trump Administration’s latest intrusions demonstrate that we will never be left alone. As always, those who prattle on about individual freedoms slip quite easily into authoritarianism when defied. If businesses still refuse to open up as the president or the attorney general instructs, what then? Will the administration send in the FBI to force tattoo parlors to serve customers? Will it deputize the National Guard to herd us onto the beaches?
The challenges we will have to face after the crisis—chief among them climate change—cannot be met by a society so divided, so given over to the wealthiest and most powerful. Everything that supposedly elevated the United States above the rest of the world, that made our businesses more “lean” and “flexible”—meager unions, low taxes, inadequate consumer protections, a dearth of government regulations, a flimsy social safety net, a complete lack of central planning—has instead mired us in a crisis that much of the world is already climbing out of. “We built an economy with no shock absorbers,” as the Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz put it. “We made a system that looked like it was maximizing profits but had higher risks and lower resiliency.”
Given the need for change, what we should first demand is what every other developed nation on the planet already has: universal, affordable health care—a system that is oriented solely toward keeping our country healthy rather than boosting the profits of faceless, amoral corporations. Awful as the coronavirus is, it has limned this one big thing: Affordable health care for all is not a luxury. It is an indispensable part of any modern state.
This health care system must also be provided with the equipment it needs to deal with whatever crisis comes its way. The coronavirus outbreak has made clear the state of our public-health infrastructure—the once-proud Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, has been reduced to suggesting that doctors and nurses wrap bandannas around their faces instead of surgical masks. COVID-19 has also taught us that we cannot count on General Motors, or any other corporation, to drop what it is doing and swing into making medical equipment or other necessities on command. We can’t even count on the federal government to give that command.
Beyond preparing for the next crisis, however, we must break the hold of what nineteenth-century Populists called “the money power.” Long before the coronavirus appeared, financial and real estate interests were already obliterating much of our economy—forcing people out of their homes, crushing small businesses, and raising rents to unsustainable levels. The pandemic only hastened the crash. Having vacuumed up an unconscionable amount of our wealth, these interests must be forced to get the economy back up and running for everybody. This means imposing a special emergency tax to fund our immediate recovery, crafting a more progressive permanent tax structure, mandating debt and rent forgiveness, and perhaps even requiring the forfeiture of some assets, such as the homes, storefronts, and lots now being deliberately kept empty by real estate developers in many American cities.
To curb any of these powers—Big Pharma, Wall Street, a lawless Republican Party—will require a titanic struggle. Despite our high hopes, liberals have been disappointed again and again over the past twenty-five years, by electoral defeats in Congress, by state and local elections, by the economic conservatism of the Obama Administration, and most recently by the failure of the Warren and Sanders campaigns.
But disasters have a way of opening new opportunities—of exposing rot and exacerbating discontent. Whether they lead to change, and how long it takes, depends on us.
In the fourteenth century, the bubonic plague killed up to 125 million people, around a quarter of all the humans on earth. Europe, with a population already under stress from war, famine, roaming bands of brigands, deforestation, and the beginning of the Little Ice Age, was devastated. Over the span of four years, from 1347 to 1351, at least one third and perhaps as much as three fifths of the continent perished. The death toll was somewhere between 20 million and 50 million. Medieval cities, lacking adequate hygiene or sewerage, were ravaged, and rural villages fared no better. The historian Barbara Tuchman describes three devastated hamlets in Cambridgeshire:
When the last survivors, too few to carry on, moved away, a deserted village sank back into the wilderness and disappeared from the map altogether, leaving only a grass-covered ghostly outline to show where mortals once had lived.
Traumatized as the survivors of the black death must have been, they also found themselves enjoying something they had never known before: leverage. The peasants and workers who were left alive came into more wealth than they had ever had, and the much reduced workforce meant that they could bargain for better conditions. The ruling class had shrunk, and the noblemen and churchmen who remained now had fewer subjects to play against one another.
The feudal system had already been moving, however unevenly, toward monetary compensation for the “villeins” laboring on lords’ estates. Still, following the plague, commoners were able to force unprecedented gains in rights and remuneration. These included the ability to rent and even own land, or move on to other fiefdoms for a better livelihood. “The effect of the Plague was to introduce a complete revolution in the occupation of land,” wrote the great Victorian historian and economist Thorold Rogers—but it was hardly a quick revolution, or universally successful.
Peasants’ newfound political power varied depending on location and circumstance, but reactionary resistance to the greater freedom of the post-plague world was always fierce. In Eastern Europe, writes the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, “Nobles colluded to impose serfdom”—de facto slavery—“on their peasantries to lock down a depleted labor force.” That backlash drew a line across Europe that endures to this day. “Free labor and thriving cities drove modernization in Western Europe,” Scheidel writes, “but in the eastern periphery, development fell behind.”
In England, the aristocracy reacted to the newly empowered peasantry with a series of increasingly draconian edicts. In 1349, the English Ordinance of Laborers decreed that all wages would be the same as they had been in 1347. Two years later, a law banned begging and allowed for lords to seize peasants who tried to work independently. Ensuing laws stipulated that fugitive workers or peasants could be fined, imprisoned, put in the stocks, or branded on the forehead with an “F” for “fugitive” or “falsity.”
This struggle culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, an uprising that was quickly and brutally suppressed by royal force. But though the attempt to overthrow the aristocracy had been put down, the old feudalism could not be resuscitated—at least not in England. The shift in power set into motion by the black death—the opportunity that came when the world split open—led to money replacing obligation and the abolition of serfdom in much of the West. But for most Europeans, it would still take centuries for anything resembling full citizenship to be achieved. With their backs to the wall, the ruling classes fought back more tenaciously than ever. Even in the face of the plague, they managed to retain most of their privilege.
A closer, and more encouraging, example of how we have emerged from catastrophe can be found in the aftermath of World War II. When the war ended in Europe, the British opted to replace Winston Churchill with Labour’s Clement Attlee, a man whom the doyenne of radicalism Beatrice Webb once referred to as “an insignificant elderly clerk.” Many of Attlee’s rivals, even within his own party, agreed. Churchill, by contrast, had an approval rating of 83 percent in May 1945, the month the Nazis surrendered.
But the British had not fought the war for Winston Churchill; they had fought it to win a better world for themselves. They rallied around Labour’s slogan of “winning the peace,” and its plans to build housing, achieve full employment, provide national health care, social security, and universal education, and nationalize major industries. Attlee may not have been glamorous, but he had grit. Though the United Kingdom was virtually destitute after the war, his government delivered on nearly all of Labour’s promises. It also began to dismantle the British Empire and helped form the Western alliance that rebuilt Europe and halted Soviet expansion.
Attlee’s victory did not come overnight; it was the climax of the left’s decades-long struggle to build political strength in Britain. It brought working people into the halls of power in ways that had once seemed impossible. (Among other milestones, no fewer than seven members of Attlee’s Labour cabinet were men who had worked in coal mines.)
This dream of a new social contract was shared across the Atlantic, where many Americans were still apprehensive about what life after wartime would bring: the return of the Great Depression, or the kind of violent, racist, xenophobic reaction that had followed World War I. Many progressive reforms had been achieved through the New Deal, and more would come through the programs of the Great Society. But without a secure place in the Constitution, those reforms remain susceptible to attacks from the right, which seeks to abolish them entirely.
The coronavirus, thank God, will not kill anything close to the number of people claimed by the black death. But given the vulnerability of America’s institutions, the political reaction to COVID-19 could be equally lethal and repressive. Republican leaders are aware that the peaceful postwar revolution led by Attlee—and the one that liberals attempted in this country—required a democratic society to succeed. As such, they have targeted our democracy’s immune system like a virus themselves: attempting to override the power of states and cities they do not control; cracking down on pensions and other public-employee benefits; and pushing to close the Postal Service, a pillar of freedom that predates our nation’s founding and was, in fact, critical to winning its independence. The right views the pandemic as yet another chance to reverse decades of political reform before the bodies are cold. We must fight them now if we are to build a better world.