Another New Deal Coming? Gerry OShea
Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished Canadian historian and author, pointed out recently that a country emerging from a calamity situation is often ripe for sweeping political changes. The famous conservative economist, Milton Friedman, made the same point in a different way: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.”
There are two areas of contemporary American life which, taken together, certainly qualify as harbingers of major movements in American culture and politics: the corona virus epidemic and heightened awareness of racism after George Floyd’s torture and death.
We are not talking here about minor adjustments to the status quo, represented by the image of dealing with a bad storm blowing from the south; the far more appropriate metaphor is conveyed in the equivalent of a gathering tsunami that will engulf the whole country.
The upcoming November elections may well usher in a new era. All recent polls, national as well as in the swing states, suggest that Democrats will not only take over the White House but will also win the senate and at least hold their clear majority in the House of Representatives.
Joe Biden is often talked about as a safe pair of hands, comfortable in the middle ground of American politics. However, in recent months, he has clearly veered to the left, encompassing more radical thinking, in response to the ongoing crises in the areas of healthcare and race relations.
In the 1932 presidential election with the Great Depression still in full swing, the incumbent in the White House, Herbert Hoover, argued that he had dealt well with that economic catastrophe, but he was roundly defeated by FDR presenting and later implementing radical proposals appropriately called the New Deal, which involved major government remedial actions in employment, healthcare and, for the first time, providing a guaranteed income for all retirees.
Hoover’s loud and ambitious assurance in 1930 that the depression would be over within sixty days was completely off and bears an eerie resemblance to our current president’s wishful thinking that the virus will somehow fade away and disappear magically.
In the 1980 election, the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, was in trouble because of a confluence of happenings mostly outside of his control, especially the Iran hostage crisis where Americans were imprisoned and publicly humiliated by the Ayatollah Khomeini. A poor economy with high inflation also weakened his chances as he appealed to the American people for a second term.
Ronald Reagan won a resounding victory and sent the impressive man from Georgia home to build houses for Habitat for Humanity and to teach Sunday school in his church.
So began Reaganomics, ushering in a radical new epoch in American politics, which, for better or worse, has dominated economic policy-making since. A word of caution here for Democrats about the present race for the White House: Jimmy Carter was ahead in a Gallup Poll by eight points a few weeks before election day in 1980. Reagan won the popular vote and the electoral college in a landslide by 489 to 49.
The handling of the corona virus is clearly the number one issue in this year’s elections. According to all the polls Mr. Trump is faring very poorly in this central issue. He disregarded early advice from some of his top advisors who warned that Covid 19 could provide a really serious challenge to the healthcare system in the country.
All the countries in Western Europe and in Asia have tamed the virus with low numbers of infections being reported now every day. These countries’ leaders have followed scientific advice in their plans to beat the insidious pathogen. President Trump decided that he would lead the country by holding daily press briefings, mostly reassuring the people with vapid pronouncements like asserting repeatedly that the virus will disappear – in his words “like a miracle.”
By comparison his opponent in the November election, Joseph Biden, wrote a January op-ed piece in USA Today warning ominously that the country needed a scientific plan to counter the serious danger that he saw ahead. He stressed that this should not be a red or blue party issue, but he cautioned that he had seen in the Obama administration the crucial importance of preventive action in the containment of the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Seven months since the early cases were reported and the number of American deaths is tipping inexorably upwards towards 200,000 – indicating a massive epidemic, the worst since the so-called Spanish flu more than a century ago.
The low point of President Trump’s performance on the Covid 19 crisis came at a daily press briefing when he suggested that consideration should be given to injecting Lysol into the human bloodstream, based on the logic that if it could sanitize the body externally then it might clean out the stomach as well. Lysol manufacturers responded with urgent advertisements stressing that this use of their product could be very dangerous.
Pretending that Covid 19 is just a passing phenomenon and that the United States has handled it better than any other country is still part of the White House Alice-in-Wonderland narrative. The reality is that the country is in disarray since March with more than a thousand dying every day, with thirty-three million Americans unemployed and in excess of fifty million students and their families waiting instructions for attending public schools throughout the country.
Hong Kong, a city-state of seven and a half million, has stuck rigidly to universal mask-wearing in public and, so far, only forty-six locals died from the contagion. Instead of leading a campaign urging citizens to cover their faces when they are outside their homes, Trump rarely wears a mask and has only given the idea a tepid endorsement.
No wonder that polls show that more than 60% of the people lack confidence in President Trump’s leadership in dealing with the pathogen, and, predictably, an even higher percentage declare that the country is not moving in the right direction.
Then on May 25th we saw the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mr Floyd was accused of passing a $20 counterfeit bill, an offense that would normally merit a citation. Instead, we saw him handcuffed on the ground pleading with a policeman, whose knee was pressing on his neck, that he couldn’t breathe and calling on his dead mother for help. The whole sordid scene was captured on an eight-and-a-half- minute phone video by a courageous teenage girl, which also showed other policemen co-operating in the foul deed and the main perpetrator, Officer Chauvin, nonchalantly putting his hands in his pockets while his knee pressed on the neck of the dying man.
There were many similar cases of maltreatment of black men by white officers, but the patent brutality in Mr. Floyd’s case and the clarity of the video drew massive street protests across the United States and Canada. The crowds were large and angry everywhere and, very noticeably prominent were young white men and women making their voices heard proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.
President Trump condemned the killing, but since then he has beaten the old drum of blaming marchers because of the actions of a few protesters. He proclaims that he is on the side of the police and is using the old racist whistle about a breakdown of law and order. People have heard all that rhetoric before, but two polls showed that over 70% - 26% more than early in the year - of white people agree that racism is a major factor in American life, which must be dealt with urgently.
The Kaiser family released a tracking poll recently showing that 53% of American adults say that the coronavirus is taking a toll on their mental health and that number rises to 68% among African-Americans. In a confirmatory study by the National Center for Health Statistics the number of people in the United States suffering from anxiety disorders has moved from one in 12 a year ago to one in three now.
If Joe Biden is elected president and the Democrats control the Senate and the House, the sense of a real popular crisis generated by Covid 19 and by the murder of George Floyd will precipitate major changes in American public life comparable to FDR’s New Deal after the 1932 election.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com