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The Coronavirus Is Transforming Politics and Economics – The New Yorker

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Just like in wartime, people are frightened, public attitudes are changing, and the circumstances necessitate an expanded role for the government, including the Department of the Treasury.Photographer by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

In early March, when health experts warned that the United States risked running short of vital medical supplies, such as masks and ventilators, Donald Trump resisted calls to invoke the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that gives the President broad powers to prioritize the production of certain items when they become important for national security. As recently as last week, he said, “We don’t need it.” Finally, on Thursday, Trump dropped the pretense and invoked the act to order the suppliers of ventilator manufacturers to give them the components they need to speed up production.

Every day, in ways small and large, the spread of the coronavirus is reshaping American politics. As the death toll rises and the economic fallout spreads, measures once considered unthinkable are being adopted, and not just in the public-health sphere. The $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill that Congress passed last week is worth about ten per cent of G.D.P., and in the coming months we are likely to see another stimulus. This dramatic ramp-up in federal spending is comparable to what happened in 1942, the year after Pearl Harbor, when federal spending as a share of G.D.P. rose by more than ten percentage points.

Trump is no F.D.R., of course, and the virus, unlike the Axis Powers, is an invisible enemy. But the record shows that lethal pandemics and major wars can both have enormous political and economic consequences. In his 2017 opus “The Great Leveler,” Walter Scheidel, a Stanford historian, described them as two of the “four horsemen” that have flattened economic inequality throughout human history. (The other two levelling forces that Scheidel identified were revolutions and state failures.) By decimating the population of medieval Europe, the Black Death made labor scarce, which raised wages and undermined the feudal system. The Civil War abolished slavery and gave rise to the Homestead Act of 1862. The First World War changed the role of women in the economy and paved the way for their political emancipation. The Second World War elevated the role of labor unions and led to the explicit adoption of Keynesian full-employment policies, through the 1946 Employment Act. In Europe, it facilitated the creation of a postwar welfare state, including the National Health Service in Britain.

These violent ruptures lasted years. We can hope that this horrible public-health crisis will also be temporary. And yet, the “wartime” metaphor is in many ways apt. Daily life has been transformed; in just two weeks, almost ten million Americans have filed unemployment claims; and earlier this week a White House task force said the death toll could eventually reach two hundred and forty thousand. Just like in wartime, people are frightened, public attitudes are changing, and the circumstances are necessitating a big expansion of the government’s role.

As of today, tens of millions of small and medium-sized firms will be able to take out bank loans to cover all of their running costs, including wages and rent, for the next eight weeks. If they keep their workers on the books, or rehire the ones they have laid off in the past couple of weeks, the Treasury Department will automatically repay the loans in their entirety. (I wrote about the scheme earlier this week.) The involvement of banks disguises the fact that this is essentially a huge, federal grant program, in which Uncle Sam will be paying the wages of tens of millions of Americans who are nominally private-sector employees. For a conservative Republican Administration, this is a strikingly interventionist move. But it doesn’t cover large corporations, and there are doubts about how quickly and widely the loans will be taken up. (The initial reports aren’t encouraging.) If the jobless count keeps rising, pressure will grow for the Administration to go further and copy the emergency job-protection programs that many European countries have adopted, which encompass businesses of all sizes and involve the government paying them directly.

In other policy areas, too, the Overton window—the range of political options considered acceptable—is expanding. The rapid passage of such a big stimulus, with more to come probably, has punctured the idea, assiduously promoted by deficit hawks, that we “can’t afford” more government programs. Despite all the additional spending, the U.S. Treasury is still able to borrow on remarkably favorable terms: on Thursday, the yield on ten-year Treasury bonds was just 0.63 per cent. And as a backstop, there is the Federal Reserve, with its electronic printing press at the ready.

You don’t have to be a convert to Modern Monetary Theory to have noted the alacrity with which the Fed, over the past month, has purchased and placed on its balance sheet about $1.5 trillion worth of Treasury bonds, commercial paper and bonds issued by large corporations, mortgage-backed securities, auto loans, and credit-card loans. In the coming days, it may well start lending directly to big corporations. As the Fed constructs a comprehensive safety net for Wall Street and corporate America, how can anyone argue against an equally comprehensive approach to safeguarding the welfare of medical workers, delivery-truck drivers, grocery-store employees, and other ordinary Americans on the front line of the battle to contain COVID-19?

The public at large may not grasp some of the financial intricacies, but it surely sees the urgent need for universal health care. According to a poll published by Morning Consult earlier this week, net support for Medicare for All—those who support it minus those who oppose it—has risen by nine points. The virus isn’t just raising support for socialized medicine; it is also undermining the finances of the private-insurance model. Caring for COVID-19 patients can be very costly. If the insurers have to recoup these costs next year, they could raise their 2021 premiums by more than forty per cent, according to an analysis by Covered California, the Golden State’s official health-insurance marketplace. Though Elizabeth Warren is out of the Democratic primary and it would be a huge surprise for Bernie Sanders to secure the Party’s nomination, they could well end up winning the debate over health-care policy.

In another important development, the mass layoffs that have resulted from the virus have also laid bare the iniquities of the gig economy, in which Uber drivers and other online-platform workers, temp-agency workers, and a whole variety of freelancers didn’t have access to health insurance, sick leave, or unemployment insurance. During an appearance on CNBC on Thursday, the investor James Chanos said he was selling short the stocks of gig-economy companies because their business model, which is based on classifying workers as self-employed to avoid giving them costly benefits, is likely to be challenged. “I think both political parties are going to be looking at that pretty hard,” Chanos said.

Much depends on the duration of the pandemic, of course. If the associated shutdowns prove to be reasonably short-lived—two or three months—the economy and the markets could rebound fairly rapidly. Congress and the Fed could wind down their emergency programs, and public attitudes could flip back. But the longer the pandemic goes on, and the deadlier it becomes, the greater the pressure will be for more government activism of various forms.

It would be reassuring to think that this pressure will always lead to necessary actions and progressive policies, but that might be kidding ourselves. A new study of the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on the U.S. and European countries shows that it led to a decline in social trust. The spread of the virus, the confinement measures taken to counter it, and “rumours about enemy spies spreading the infection beyond the lines as a kind of biological weapon created a climate of suspicion and mistrust,” the authors noted.

With some people already calling for residents of COVID-19 hotspots to be confined to their own areas, and Trump referring to “the China virus,” we are already seeing some echoes of this phenomenon. As the pandemic intensifies, it could lead to rising xenophobia, a further accentuation of regional divides, and even demands for authoritarian remedies, which Trump, having settled into the idea of himself as a wartime leader, might be all too eager to exploit.

That is worst-case speculation. But COVID-19 is shifting the tectonic plates that undergird American politics, and, as with the progress of the virus itself, the range of possible outcomes is wide. It is in such circumstances that history is made, for good or ill.


A Guide to the Coronavirus

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The Atlantic Politics Daily: Trump’s Miracle Drug – The Atlantic

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It’s Monday, April 6. In today’s newsletter: What is actually known about hydroxychloroquine, the drug the president is fixated on recommending for COVID-19. Plus: The pandemic seems to be hitting people of color the hardest.

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« TODAY IN POLITICS »

(The Atlantic)

Trump’s Miracle Drug

President Trump has tweeted some very questionable information about the coronavirus, most recently hyping “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN,” as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Our staff writer James Hamblin cautions:

While some very early evidence has shown that hydroxychloroquine may influence the course of COVID-19, Trump is overriding his top medical adviser and minimizing serious risks by encouraging Americans to try the drug right now. This brazen dispensation of medical advice from the president is dangerous in ways beyond the potential harm of the drug itself.  

What is known about hydroxychloroquine, then?

It is unclear how hydroxychloroquine would work to treat COVID-19, but the drug is one of many now being urgently studied for the treatment of the disease. The drugs being tested include those that could block viral replication, such as remdesivir, and others that may target the way the virus binds to human cells. Still other drugs aim to modulate a person’s immune response, among them a class of drugs known as IL-6 inhibitors. Hydroxychloroquine has the theoretical potential to affect the virus itself or the immune response. In addition to treating malaria, hydroxychloroquine is importantin the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. In those specific conditions, the drug effectively serves to subdue an overactive immune response.

Read Jim’s full story.

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« THE CORONAVIRUS READER »

(Carolyn Kaster / AP)

In this photograph, Joel Albert, of Potomac, Maryland, plays his drums under a canopy of cherry blossoms at the end of March. Our senior editor Alan Taylor has put together this essay of images of warmer days and beautiful flowers returning to the Northern Hemisphere, for all of those who can’t be outside to see them.

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« THE CORONAVIRUS READER »

(MIM.GIRL / SHUTTERSTOCK / THE ATLANTIC)

+ The pandemic seems to be hitting people of color the hardest, Ibram X. Kendi notes based on his reading of data from hot spots. And “in the end, though, no group of Americans may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the incarcerated and the homeless,” he writes. It’s time to pay more attention to these pandemic disparities.

+ What’s going on with Bill de Blasio? The New York mayor seems irritated by the need to fight the coronavirus, Alexander Nazaryan writes: “Aware that his progressive ambitions have been frustrated, de Blasio has complained that legions of enemies—conservatives, capitalists, newspaper headline writers—are arrayed against his vision for the city.”

+ The president belatedly acknowledged how dire a threat COVID-19 is, but many of his enablers in right-wing media refuse to take his cue, Peter Beinart writes: “Even when he reluctantly accepts a scientific consensus, some of the biggest conservative megaphones in America still won’t.”

+ Conor Friedersdorf has a few suggestions for fantasy sports programming that can safely entertain a television audience during the pandemic. Hall-of-Famers H-O-R-S-E? Tennis-Icon Ping-Pong?

You can keep up with The Atlantic’s most crucial coronavirus coverage here.


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Today’s newsletter was written by Kaila Philo, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to politicsdaily@theatlantic.com.

Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.

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

Shan Wang is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees newsletters.

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The Challenges, And The Politics, Of Suddenly Switching To Voting By Mail – NPR

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Many states are expanding mail-in voting as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But the issue is fraught with politics and logistical obstacles.

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American Politics Is Broken. Liberalism Can't Fix It. – Jacobin magazine

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American Politics Is Broken. Liberalism Can’t Fix It.

Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized identifies much of what’s wrong in the gridlocked US political system. But he dismisses the role of class in cohering the movements that can finally democratize it.

The White House in Washington, DC, May 2008.
AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikimedia

In his new book Why We’re Polarized, Vox founder Ezra Klein offers a model for understanding American political polarization and dysfunction through the lens of group identity. He argues that while polarization is normal (the United States is still actually less polarized than many other democracies), our political system is simply not equipped to deal with partisan polarization.

His account goes something like this: the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War set the stage for a century of autocratic one-party Democratic rule in the South. Despite bearing the Democratic moniker, the “Dixiecrats” were really a party unto their own. Northern Democrats tolerated the Dixiecrats’ white supremacism in order to maintain a viable national ruling coalition, an arrangement that precluded neat bipolar sorting along party lines.

This uneasy alliance came to an end when northern Democrats broke ranks to join the Republican minority in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the same year the right-wing Barry Goldwater snagged the Republican presidential nomination, which “cleared the way for southern conservatives to join the Republican Party and northern liberals to join the Democratic Party.” With the Dixiecrats out of the picture, the political parties were free to naturally sort themselves around ideology — and, eventually, everything else too.

In the following decades, we saw the rise of what Klein terms political “mega-identities” that subsume everything from ideology to racial and gender identities to the movies we watch, the news we consume, and the restaurants we patronize. Virtually everything about us can now signal partisan identity.

While political polarization is not inherently bad, as it allows for clearer and more meaningful choices at the ballot box, the US political system — with all of its “checks and balances” and veto points — requires compromise to function. Polarization under divided government explains the never-ending gridlock, the government shutdowns, the “constitutional hardball,” and the inability of elected majorities to actually enact their agenda.

Furthermore, the undemocratic nature of American political representation has resulted in asymmetric political polarization. Republicans can win elections by catering to a minority of overrepresented mostly white, mostly Christian rural voters who feel their demographic dominance slipping, while Democrats, in Klein’s view, must moderate their platform to appeal to a broader coalition that includes right-of-center voters.

The result: an extremist Republican Party bearing hard into white identity politics and antidemocratic policies to consolidate their minority rule, a moderate Democratic Party forced to cobble together a broad coalition of less homogenous voters often united only in their opposition to Republicans, and a cumbersome political system always on the brink of crisis and failure.

This analysis is convincing. Klein, known for his wonky attention to detail, stays grounded in material reality. Where many liberal commentators blame individual actors, Klein is focused on the incentives that drive them. The problem isn’t Mitch McConnell — it’s the undemocratic nature of the Senate and a flawed constitution that generates irresolvable legitimacy crises under divided government. The problem isn’t Trump himself — it’s a political system that allows demagogues to take power without a popular mandate.

This systemic approach gets to the heart of the problem with American politics. Gridlock and crises of inaction aren’t the result of politicians that don’t know how to compromise but rather a political system that disincentivizes bipartisan cooperation while requiring it to function.

Rethinking, Not Rescuing, Identity Politics

Why We’re Polarized, according to Klein, is focused on understanding these problems, not solving them. Nonetheless, the final chapter cautiously offers some solutions. In addition to proposing much needed democratic and regulatory reforms, which Klein elsewhere dismisses as unlikely to actually happen, he also calls for us to “depolarize ourselves.”

Political identities, he warns, are reinforced by a “massive apparatus for defining, policing, and activating them.” By practicing “identity mindfulness,” individuals can recognize propaganda and slant and better manage their own emotional response to identity-based manipulation.

While such mindfulness might help individuals lead more examined political lives, it does little to address the problems Klein identifies. Individualist solutions are no answer to intractable societal problems.

Klein is speaking mostly to a receptive left-leaning audience. Republicans voting on white identity politics aren’t listening and they have no incentive to start now. They aren’t going to turn off right-wing media in a moment of quiet self-reflection, not en masse. They aren’t going to help dismantle the undemocratic institutions that politically advantage them. And they certainly aren’t going to abandon an identitarian movement in the middle of what feels, to them, like an existential battle against opponents rallying around their own brand of identity politics.

In the introduction to the book, Klein attempts to “rescue” identity politics from those who have weaponized the term against historically marginalized groups. White Republicans wield their (waning) demographic majority to present their concerns as “just good, old-fashioned politics” while dismissing the concerns of minorities as self-interested, niche identity politics. “With a quick sleight of hand,” Klein writes, “identity becomes something that only marginalized groups have.”

Klein isn’t wrong here. The dominance of identity politics across the political spectrum can make organizing around class and universalist policies seem hopeless or like a strategic error. It is neither. The Left has paid a great price for organizing mostly around minority identity politics, often to the exclusion of class politics entirely. The Democratic base comprises a hodgepodge of minority groups and white liberals. The glue holding that coalition together is often little more than dislike of Republicans. This is not enough to build a viable political movement.

A party in which both Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders can make a credible play for the nomination is inherently unstable.

Moreover, organizing the Left around a coalition of marginalized identities, as most liberals and even many leftists now do, cedes political debate to the preferred venue of the identitarian right. They want to argue over divisive cultural issues. The culture wars are also the preferred battlefield of right-wing ideologues who would rather political debate stay focused on identity issues than on enacting universal social programs, addressing inequality through wealth redistribution, or challenging the power and influence of capital.

We have gone so far down the left identitarian rabbit hole that, as Klein points out, in a “bizarre, worst-of-both-worlds compromise,” candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination began rebranding popular universalist policies in the language of identity politics. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren billed an earned income tax credit and universal childcare, respectively, as reparations for slavery. “These were universalist programs—programs that would help people of all races—being pitched in particularist ways,” Klein writes.

There’s no better way to hobble a popular agenda than to mislabel it as something divisive and unpopular. We’re doing the Right’s work for it here.

Worse, identity-based political organizing causes the Left to actually abandon its core mission of building a just, equitable society, shifting battles from broad struggles for the redistribution of wealth and resources to a fight for more seats at the table. The problem becomes not the unjust system itself but rather the lack of minority representation within it. In this way, the identity politics that Klein hopes to rescue, no matter how well intentioned such movements may be, end up reinforcing the neoliberal status quo.

Class Is More Than an Identity

Despite repeatedly emphasizing that our identities are pluralistic, Klein gives little attention to class in the book. This seems curious given that class cuts across racial divides and the geographic divisions that warp representation in the American political system. After all, Donald Trump would not be in the White House, nor would Republicans enjoy such an unassailable demographic advantage in the Senate, without having picked off so many white workers in the Midwest and elsewhere.

During a book tour Q&A session, Klein clarified that he doesn’t see class as a powerful identity in American politics. He notes that the Left line that “conservatives vote against their own interests” is a misunderstanding that arises from narrowly defining interests in terms of material resources. In Klein’s view, American politics is a fight over group identity and status, and policy debates are merely proxy wars in the struggle for group dominance. Voters are voting on identity, and the Left has mostly failed to create a class identity that speaks to the American public.

It’s true that the broader liberal left has largely abandoned class politics and that the rising democratic-socialist left must work harder to build class identity, but the implication that class is just another identity equal to others is inaccurate. Class consciousness may get activated like any other identity, but it functions very differently in practice. Whereas “identity politics” (as practiced by both the Left and the Right) divide the country into factions at war for group status, class consciousness cuts across racial, geographic, and cultural divides. Organizing around class puts most voters on the same side.

I’m under no illusion that white workers will unanimously join a class-oriented, multiracial, egalitarian movement — the pull of fascism and nativist nationalism is strong — but organizing around universalist policies at least provides material reasons to do so.

The Bernie Sanders campaign’s strength, once again, reveals the power in organizing around the commonality of class. Rather than trying to disguise universalist policies in the language of identity politics, Sanders consistently responds to the Democratic establishment’s pandering identity fetishization by underscoring how his policies — such as Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee — benefit everyone, marginalized groups most of all, in material ways that chanting vague platitudes like “X minority’s rights are human rights” does not.

It’s not enough to simply acknowledge injustice — we have to actually do something about it.

If the Democratic Party and the broader left want voters to vote on material interests, they need to make improving material conditions a priority and market it as such. Of course, much of the Democratic establishment has no interest in challenging the neoliberal order and is happy to spin its wheels arguing endlessly over whether our oppressors are diverse enough.

Those who are truly invested in improving material conditions will still find themselves pushing up against the gridlock inherent to our broken and undemocratic political system, but at least they’ll be able to credibly and honestly make the case that they are working to make things better, for everyone.

Democratization Is Not Optional

A popular platform will not spare the Left from contending with the constraints of the American political system described in Why We’re Polarized. Enacting policies, no matter how popular, requires political power. Unfortunately, malapportionment — which overwhelmingly benefits the Republican Party — prevents electoral majorities from translating into governing majorities that control political institutions. Furthermore, “checks and balances” prevent even governing majorities from enacting their campaign agenda.

Given that an excess of veto points favors neoliberal politics, this is particularly problematic for the Left when trying to create public programs and social policies. We won’t get to democratic socialism without democratic governance.

Under the current system, the American public is powerless to hold politicians accountable for policy failures and broken promises. Voters often don’t even know whom to blame. Divided government in the presidential system, a bicameral legislature, and judicial review create competing claims to democratic legitimacy that, as Klein points out, the American political system has no way to resolve. This is why Americans have such disdain for Washington. Legislators can’t legislate. The administration can’t govern. One party gets blamed for the other’s obstructionism and sabotage. Nothing changes no matter who wins elections, and voters are left demoralized. Ultimately, political disputes get decided by unelected federal judges, if they are addressed at all.

Klein is absolutely correct, as he argues in the book, that American democracy would work better if governing coalitions were elected by popular will and able to enact their campaign agenda. The public could then decide whether or not they did a good job and vote accordingly in the next election. This is the popular conception of democracy. It’s also not at all how the American political system works.

Why We’re Polarized offers a number of strategies for democratizing the political system, including fighting voter suppression, bypassing the Electoral College with an interstate popular vote pact, replacing gerrymandered single-member House districts with multimember districts decided by ranked-choice voting, scrapping the Senate filibuster, expanding congressional representation to Puerto Rico and DC to rebalance power in the Senate, and changing the composition of the Supreme Court.

None of these solutions need to clear the almost impossible hurdle of constitutional amendment. Some are procedural reforms. Others can be enacted with simple majorities in Congress once the filibuster is removed. Admittance of new states into the union isn’t even subject to presidential veto. Klein makes these suggestions precisely because he sees them as most achievable. More foundational constitutional reforms, like the abolition or democratization of the Senate, are deemed impossible.

He’s not alone. In his 2001 book, How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, the late constitutional scholar Robert Dahl voiced a similar pessimism. He found the most ambitious and meaningful democratic reforms the least achievable and put the odds of democratizing the Senate at “virtually zero.” More recently, political scientist David Faris put forward a plan to democratize the Constitution in It’s Time to Fight Dirty. Here, too, the reader is offered a familiar combination of policy reforms and messy constitutional workarounds that paper over the structural problems of broken institutions.

There is an understandable pragmatism at play here. The American constitution is hard to amend. Republicans will resist any democratic reforms that threaten their advantage. Constitutional workarounds seem like the obvious answer. Admitting new states into the union so that Senate malapportionment breaks more evenly over current partisan coalitions seems more achievable than abolishing the Senate. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact seems easier than doing away with the Electoral College.

But is this really true? These reforms haven’t happened for a reason. Republicans’ outsized power in political institutions is self-reinforcing. Any constitutional workarounds have to survive the undemocratic political institutions they seek to reform, a problem Klein acknowledges. Bills have to make it through both chambers of Congress and avoid presidential veto to become law. Even then, they can be struck down by conservative-packed courts.

Crudely rebalancing malapportionment without directly addressing the way votes are counted and weighted could also backfire. Republicans can pack courts and “gerrymander” state lines too. In fact, they’re better positioned to do so.

Weaponizing flaws in the political system to score political points, suppress votes, and subvert democracy are already a primary way political battles are waged in this country. Major escalation in such tactics is only going to further delegitimize the constitutional system — but that might actually be the best argument for pursuing them. An undemocratic political system that works to suppress popular will should be deemed illegitimate and, ultimately, dismantled.

This is what Klein and other liberals know but are unwilling to say.

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