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Politics in the Time of COVID-19 – Voice of America

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In order to combat the coronavirus, medical professionals are telling us to keep apart. If you think in terms of our national politics, that should not be too hard. We have been moving apart for decades. 

This week, I wrap up a 37-year career at Voice of America, having spent much of that time covering U.S. politics. First, it was the Congress in the early ’90s, and for the past quarter century, elections and politics on a national scale for an international audience.  

From my vantage point, the past three decades have shown the United States as a house divided, a country buffeted by shifting political currents that sway the pendulum on a regular basis between right and left, stability and upheaval. 

Now the country and the world face one of the great challenges of our times — countering the coronavirus pandemic. The closest parallel in recent history was the U.S. coming together to fight terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

That national unity, however, did not last long. The Iraq War a few years later once again split the country apart, and our political differences have only sharpened since the elections of Barack Obama and his successor, Donald Trump. 

Differing perceptions 

There are numerous examples on the local level of Americans coming together to battle the coronavirus pandemic. On the national level, though, our tribal differences still pull us apart. The public is even divided on the seriousness of the crisis. 

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of Democrats see the outbreak as a serious threat to public health, while 33 percent of Republicans agree. 

President Donald Trump speaks with Fox News Channel Anchor Bill Hemmer during a Fox News Channel virtual town hall, at the White House, in Washington, March 24, 2020.

On Monday, Trump hinted he soon may loosen federal guidelines for social distancing, with an eye toward jolting the economy back to life. ”America will again and soon be open for business,” he told reporters at the White House. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” 

Two recent polls show at least half the country approves of Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis.  And his overall approval rating now averages 44 percent, according to assessments by two non-partisan analytical sites, RealClear Politics and FiveThirtyEight.com.

Despite the polling bump, Democrats have less faith than Republicans in Trump’s ability to handle the crisis. A recent survey by polling company Civiqs found 90 percent of Democrats dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s response, while 85 percent of Republicans approved. 

Last week, a Washington Post article quoted one unidentified voter in Kansas as describing the pandemic as “mass hysteria caused by the liberal media. They want to take Trump and our economy down,” the person said. 

Test for Trump 

Dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak now looms as the greatest challenge of Trump’s presidency. Many analysts criticized the president for what they saw as a slow and, at times, skeptical response to the emergency early on, with numerous statements either downplaying the seriousness or making exaggerated claims of preparedness. 

In recent days, the president often has adopted a more serious tone in dealing with the outbreak and some recent polls show a slight uptick in his approval rating. Overall, though, it is still early to make a judgment on how the public views the president’s response. 

Trump is now actively seeking the spotlight in the daily coronavirus briefings from the White House. Last week, Trump said he now sees himself as a “wartime president,” and the daily TV briefing has quickly become a sort of substitute for his political rallies where he can give wide-ranging answers on the coronavirus and other issues that come to mind. 

Recession dangers 

As economists warn of a recession, Trump must be mindful of history. Economic downturns are not kind to presidents seeking reelection, as Herbert Hoover found out in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. All three lost reelection bids. 

The Double Check man is seen on a nearly empty Broadway in the financial district, as the coronavirus disease outbreak continues, in New York City, New York, March 23, 2020.

Trump may be able to rally support if he remains focused on stemming the spread of the coronavirus and finding bipartisan solutions to the economic upheaval sweeping the country. But the political risks are evident for a president who has been more unpopular than popular during his time in office. 

Political expert Alan Abramowitz wrote in a report published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics that if the president faces a severe recession with low approval ratings in November, “the result could well be a defeat of landslide proportions.” 

2020 campaign 

The coronavirus pandemic has frozen the U.S. presidential campaign in place with former Vice President Joe Biden holding what looks to be an insurmountable delegate lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the battle for the Democratic Party nomination. 

The Sanders campaign continues to hold internal discussions about whether to continue to fight or officially back Biden. Several primaries have been put off until early June and there are questions as to whether the party nominating conventions will go ahead as planned in July and August. 

Biden has decided to ramp up his messaging on the pandemic, perhaps realizing that the president is seizing the spotlight daily at the White House. In a digital video release Monday, Biden said Trump has been “behind the curve” in his response to the crisis. ”Stop swerving between overpromising, buck-passing, and start delivering protection to our people.” 

Biden and the Democrats also walk a fine line. In criticizing Trump’s response, they also must find ways to put the public good ahead of politics during a national crisis. 

A house divided 

In the early ’90s, when covering Congress, I watched as Democrats lost the House of Representatives after 40 years of control in 1994. From there it was on to coverage of the militia movement in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and more recently the rise of the Tea Party during the presidency of Barack Obama. 

One of the enduring themes from those Tea Party rallies I often heard was “no compromise,” a desire to end bipartisan dealings that these voters often felt betrayed their interests. 

As political polarization has grown over the decades, so, too, has the challenge of overcoming that split during a time of national crisis, especially with competing ideological media echo chambers that coarsen the political debate. 

We are in the midst of a public health crisis and if history is any guide, the American public often has shown it can rally and rise to the occasion — even when our national political divide gets in the way. 

The months ahead may present the greatest challenge yet for a democracy riven by partisanship: Find the will to put people, their health and the country ahead of politics during a presidential election year. 
 

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Mandryk: We need to tweak our politics to deal with COVID-19 – Regina Leader-Post

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We’ve always known our democratic system based on the need to get elected every four years has never exactly been the best method for solving big, long-term problems.

Why we still have debt, pollution, poverty, inadequate health care or man-made global warming isn’t because there aren’t solutions. It’s because solutions would mean big public investments (read: taxes) that would hinder voters’ lifestyles in the here and now.

So politicians feed off the less-charitable aspect of human nature and reassure us the big problems can be addressed by our future generations at some later date. Then it’s off to the polls every four years where governing parties remind us of their “balanced budgets”, big spending commitments and lower taxes and opposition parties argue that the government didn’t do nearly enough of all that.

But what happens if a crisis can’t be postponed to some later date?

What if it’s thrust upon on our political system in real time? What if we are hit by an immediate crisis with the capability of simultaneously swamping our health system and social safety nets and shutting down our industrialized economy?

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Coronavirus could reshape politics as we know it – New Internationalist

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28 March 2020

A McDonald’s employee holds a banner in protest of the Statutory Sick Pay offered by the government
as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

There are times in history when sudden events – natural disasters, economic collapses, pandemics, wars, famines – change everything. They change politics, they change economics and they change public opinion in drastic ways. Many social movement analysts call these ‘trigger events.’

During a trigger event, things that were previously unimaginable quickly become reality, as the social and political map is remade. On the one hand, major triggers are rare; but on the other, we have seen them regularly in recent decades. Events such as 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crash of 2008 have all had major repercussions on national life, leading to political changes that would have been difficult to predict beforehand.

COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic, is by far the biggest trigger event of our generation. It is a combination of natural disaster and economic collapse happening at the same time. Topping it off, this public health crisis is coming right in the middle of one of the most consequential political seasons of our lifetime.

In the wake of such an event, organizers often find themselves in a ‘moment of the whirlwind’, in which the standard rules of how politics works are turned on their head

Trigger events can create confusion and unease. But they also present tremendous opportunities for people who have a plan and know how to use the moment to push forward their agendas.

These agendas can be reactionary, as when conservatives and fascists pass harsh austerity measures and spread xenophobia – the type of activity documented in Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’. Yet, this type of response need not prevail. With a counter-agenda rooted in a commitment to democracy and a deep sense of collective empathy, communities can flourish, even amid a crisis.

In fact, we can find many examples in history of how progressive and solidaristic impulses have come to the fore in response to trigger events. The New Deal’s emergence as a response to the Great Depression of the 1930s is one example, as is the more recent Occupy Sandy’s mobilization in New York City to support hurricane-ravaged communities in 2012. Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ contains myriad more examples of humane, collective efforts that responded to disaster.

Today, as we face the prospect that hundreds of thousands of people in the United States – and millions around the world – may die, the only way we can prevent some of the worst tragedy and destruction is with such a response.

In my writing on social movements, I have argued that triggers create liminal spaces that mass protest movements can use to mobilize the forces of grassroots democracy. In the wake of such an event, organizers often find themselves in a ‘moment of the whirlwind’, in which the standard rules of how politics works are turned on their head. Many of the great social movements of the past have been born out of these moments.

But these moments require skillful navigation, the ability to use ‘prophetic promotion’ to spread a humane vision, and the faith that mass mobilization can open new avenues to change that, at the outset, seem distant and improbable.

In order to craft a people’s response to the pandemic, we should draw both on the possibilities of new technology that allow for decentralized action and some time-honored lessons from past social movements.

Social movements are the vehicle for mass participation

Right now, lots of people are formulating action plans and policy demands, focusing on how the government should respond or measures that elected officials might pass by way of emergency response. These include plans by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for an emergency universal basic income, and proposals by groups like the Working Families Party, National Nurses United and collections of grassroots organizers

What’s missing is a platform and vision for mass participation – a means through which people can join in and collectively take part in a movement to create the type of just response our society needs. A movement can support, amplify, and fill in the gaps left by government and the health care infrastructure.

Obviously, social distancing and the isolation required to slow the spread of the pandemic presents unique challenges. For one thing, people are limited in their ability to physically come together and congregate. Meanwhile, many of the traditional tools and tactics of social movements cannot be deployed under current circumstances.

This should not, however, blind us to the things that can be done. From mutual support in local areas to collective responses of protest from home, we can build a powerful people’s response that brings us together and uses our combined effort to provide care in our communities and reshape the limits of what is politically possible.

What’s missing is a platform and vision for mass participation – a means through which people can join in and collectively take part in a movement to create the type of just response our society needs

A social movement response to major trigger events often emerges from unexpected places. Major structure-based organizations have infrastructure and resources that seem like they would make them natural candidates for rallying the wider public into a response.

However, they also face institutional limitations that prevent them from scaling their efforts to meet the enormity of the challenge. Groups like labour unions are commonly preoccupied with responding to how the crisis is affecting their own membership, making them essential hubs of action for people within their structures but leaving them with little capacity to engage people outside of their ranks or to absorb the energy of others who might want to get involved.

Meanwhile, politicians and leading advocacy organizations are often focused on the details of the inside game – carefully monitoring and attempting to use insider leverage to influence the policies that are being debated at the local, state and federal levels. This is an important role, but it does not address the vacuum that exists in terms of mobilizing large numbers of people to change what are perceived as needed and possible solutions to the crisis. Therefore, it is often scrappy, decentralized and sometimes ad hoc groups that play vital roles in shaping a social movement response – which more institutionalized organizations can get behind once underway.

The people have responded before

The good news is that there are clear historical examples in which social movements have been able to step into the vacuum of a crisis.

After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, the mutual support operation Occupy Sandy – which drew on networks and infrastructure built during Occupy Wall Street – coordinated thousands of people into a fast and efficient response, providing food and medical attention to those in need.

It also opened a collection and distribution centre for needed supplies, kept track of individuals who might otherwise have been isolated and abandoned, and moved debris from homes and streets.

Likewise, Common Ground – one of the most significant relief organizations to quickly form and respond in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – served some of the city’s most impoverished neighbourhoods, set up temporary medical clinics and repaired damaged homes.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the DREAM movement, which works in communities of undocumented immigrants, has provided services such as scholarships, job opportunities and legal support for immigrants denied services from state and federal governments.

Millions of people stuck in their homes can still pursue action on two tracks: one focused on mutual aid and the other building political pressure around a platform of people’s demands.

Looking back at another public health emergency, we can remember that, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the LGBTQ community came together to respond to the sickness and death of thousands of individuals – even as society ostracized people who were HIV-positive, and the medical establishment often turned a blind eye to their suffering.

Groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City organized the community to raise money for research, distribute information about prevention and care, and provide counselling and social workers for thousands who needed it. At a time when the doctors and hospitals were either overwhelmed, indifferent, or antagonistic, they stepped up to fill the gap and meet basic human needs.

Meanwhile, the decentralized affinity groups of the more militant ACT UP worked tirelessly to raise public awareness about the crisis, rallying under the motto ‘Silence Equals Death’.

They quickly became on-the-ground experts in the community impact of the disease – publicly confronting leaders who spread misinformation or were hesitant to adequately fund public health efforts, calling out drug companies more fixated on profits than humane treatment and brashly insisting that health professionals be in dialogue with patients themselves. Ultimately, ACT UP fundamentally changed the country’s response to AIDS.

‘They helped revolutionize the American practice of medicine,’ The New Yorker’s Michael Specter wrote in 2002. ‘The average approval time for some critical drugs fell from a decade to a year, and the character of placebo-controlled trials was altered for good … Soon changes in the way AIDS drugs were approved were adopted for other diseases, ranging from breast cancer to Alzheimer’s.’

In 1990, the New York Times paid reluctant tribute to the group with a headline reading, ‘Rude, Rash, Effective, Act Up Shifts AIDS Policy.’

In response to the current coronavirus epidemic, the only thing that most people have been given to do is to participate in social distancing and join pre-emptive measures to slow the spread of disease.

But if people really believed they could participate meaningfully in a mass campaign to care for others and pressure public officials to adopt humane emergency policies, we can be confident that hundreds of thousands would quickly join in.

How to make it happen

If we know that we need a mass social movement response, how do we make it happen – especially in times of social distancing?

Millions of people are stuck in their homes, unable to go to work. But they can still pursue action on two tracks: one focused on mutual aid and the other building political pressure around a platform of people’s demands.

This article was republished, originally appearing in wagingnonviolence.org.

Paul Engler is the director of the Center for the Working Poor in Los Angeles, movement director at the Ayni Institute, and co-author, with Mark Engler, of ‘This Is An Uprising’.

 

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When a Pandemic Is a Political Opportunity – The Atlantic

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Joe Raedle / Getty / The Atlantic

With Bernie Sanders all but defeated and Joe Biden a near lock for the Democratic presidential nomination, the American left should be inconsolable right now. But these are not normal times. Instead of despairing, leading progressives say they are invigorated, and eager to use the coronavirus crisis to convince Biden—and millions of other Americans—that major reforms are necessary.

“These ideas we’ve been touting for a while are quickly coming to fruition as great policy measures to tackle [in] this moment,” Varshini Prakash, a co-founder and the executive director of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group advocating for climate action, told me. A great many significant social reforms have been triggered by periods of intense economic upheaval. The Tea Party seized the Great Recession in 2008–09 and its aftermath, for example to reshape the trajectory of the Republican Party. Progressives argue that the next few weeks and months present a similarly crucial juncture during which they can galvanize the American public behind their causes.

“Now is our time,” says Matt Morrison, the national director of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Progressives’ optimism could be misplaced. Social scientists have found that economic crises often benefit far-right parties. Americans may well emerge from this pandemic with increased hostility toward the government and its societal interventions; after all, failed leadership helped get us to this point. And progressive activists are still figuring out exactly how to mobilize Americans when social-distancing guidelines prevent in-person gatherings and most people are more concerned with staying healthy and employed. But already organizations say they’re working to engage Americans virtually, calling for them to pressure their members of Congress, and encouraging fellow progressives inspired by this crisis to run for office up and down the ballot.

“We have millions of people sitting in their homes, some working, some not, some aching to do something,” says Paco Fabian, the director of campaigns for Our Revolution, the political-action organization born out of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. The group is mobilizing homebound people to make phone calls and do social-media outreach for candidates and causes. The Sunrise Movement has launched an online class to educate young people about the connection between the coronavirus and climate change. “We’re in a moment of crisis, but we’ve got a plan to heal: the Green New Deal,” the class description reads.

Morrison’s organization is focused now on helping Americans navigate the health-care and unemployment-insurance systems in this fraught moment, but it says it’s simultaneously trying to build a worker-led movement. “This has got to be a call to arms for changing the fundamental posture that working people take as it relates to this economy,” Morrison told me. What we are prioritizing is shifting that power imbalance so working people who are saving all of our asses are the ones who are put in the driver’s seat of this economy going forward.”

Sanders, who still hasn’t dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination, has effectively converted his presidential campaign into a coronavirus-messaging apparatus, and he is holding regular broadcasts with other progressive lawmakers, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal, to explain how the current crisis demonstrates the need for Medicare for All. “As we do everything possible to grapple with this crisis … it is also appropriate to ask ourselves how we got here and what this says about the financial and economic structure of our country,” Sanders said in a live-streamed video Wednesday night. “People are understanding that there is something wrong that we are the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all as a human right.”

For its part, the Democratic Socialists of America says it has seen a spike in membership since Super Tuesday, some of which the group attributes to the pandemic. “We saw one of the largest ever number of attendees for an online DSA call last week on the topic of COVID-19 organizing,” a DSA spokesperson told me via email.

Progressives will be carefully monitoring shifts in Biden’s policy positions to see whether their efforts are having an impact. Already, Biden has announced his support for Sanders’s plan to make public colleges free for some students, and he’s endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to fix America’s bankruptcy system. But it’s not enough, progressive leaders say. If he “is serious about attracting progressives and the Obama coalition—which included young people—he needs to articulate a bold policy agenda that meets the scale of the crisis people are experiencing right now,” Maurice Mitchell, the director of the Working Families Party, told me.

At the end of this pandemic, more Americans will view the government as capable of solving big societal problems, progressives argue. New emergency-aid legislation dramatically expands paid sick and family leave for millions of workers and suspends work requirements for food assistance, two agenda items progressives have long supported. And the $2 trillion stimulus package that the president just signed into law would provide a $1,200 direct payment to most American adults—similar to the Freedom Dividend championed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang—and another $250 billion in unemployment-insurance benefits. “There’s going to be an amazing shift where we recognize the impact government can have on our lives for the better,” says Charles Chamberlain, the executive director at Democracy for America, a progressive political-action committee.

Progressives still have to convince members of their own party that their solutions are workable. Leftist activists and lawmakers, such as Ocasio-Cortez, who have lobbied for a so-called People’s Bailout—which would prioritize economic relief for workers over businesses—have been disappointed with Democratic leadership. The same stimulus package that offers direct payments to Americans supplies half a billion dollars to corporations, with some strings attached. Environmental protections that some Democrats wanted in the bill were left out of the final package. “I do not support the Green New Deal,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday. “There is no Green New Deal in our bill.” Perhaps most crucially, none of the policies passed in recent days—federally mandated paid sick leave among them—are likely to remain on the books permanently after the crisis is over.

But the longer the virus ravages American communities, and the longer stores and businesses stay closed, the more likely people are to appreciate progressive policies, the leaders I spoke with said. “It’s an inflection point” for the left, Prakash said. “To what end remains to be seen by the strength of our organizing.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Elaine Godfrey is an assistant editor at The Atlantic.

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