“There are in history what you could call ‘plastic hours,’ ” the philosopher Gershom Scholem once said. “Namely, crucial moments when it is possible to act. If you move then, something happens.” In such moments, an ossified social order suddenly turns pliable, prolonged stasis gives way to motion, and people dare to hope. Plastic hours are rare. They require the right alignment of public opinion, political power, and events— usually a crisis. They depend on social mobilization and leadership. They can come and go unnoticed or wasted. Nothing happens unless you move.
Are we living in a plastic hour? It feels that way.
Beneath the dreary furor of the partisan wars, most Americans agree on fundamental issues facing the country. Large majorities say that government should ensure some form of universal health care, that it should do more to mitigate global warming, that the rich should pay higher taxes, that racial inequality is a significant problem, that workers should have the right to join unions, that immigrants are a good thing for American life, that the federal government is plagued by corruption. These majorities have remained strong for years. The readiness, the demand for action, is new.
What explains it? Nearly four years of a corrupt, bigoted, and inept president who betrayed his promise to champion ordinary Americans. The arrival of an influential new generation, the Millennials, who grew up with failed wars, weakened institutions, and blighted economic prospects, making them both more cynical and more utopian than their parents. Collective ills that go untreated year after year, so bone-deep and chronic that we assume they’re permanent—from income inequality, feckless government, and police abuse to a shredded social fabric and a poisonous public discourse that verges on national cognitive decline. Then, this year, a series of crises that seemed to come out of nowhere, like a flurry of sucker punches, but that arose straight from those ills and exposed the failures of American society to the world.
The year 2020 began with an impeachment trial that led to acquittal despite the president’s obvious guilt. Then came the pandemic, chaotic hospital wards, ghost cities, lies and conspiracy theories from the White House, mass death, mass unemployment, police killings, nationwide protests, more sickness, more death, more economic despair, the disruption of normal life without end. Still ahead lies an election on whose outcome everything depends.
The year 1968—with which, for concentrated drama, 2020 is sometimes compared—marked the end of an era of reform and the start of a conservative reaction that resonated for decades. In 1968 the core phenomenon was the collapse of order. In 2020 it is the absence of solidarity. Even with majorities agreeing on central issues, there’s little sense of being in this together. The United States is world-famously individualistic, and the past half century has seen the expansion of freedom in every direction—personal, social, financial, technological. But the pandemic demonstrates, almost scientifically, the limits of individualism. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone’s health depends on the health of others. No one is safe unless everyone takes responsibility for the welfare of others. No person, community, or state can withstand the plague without a competent and active national government.
The story of the coronavirus in this country is a sequence of moments when this lesson broke down—when politicians spurned experts, governors reopened their states too soon, crowds liberated themselves in rallies and bars. The graph that shows the course of new infections in the United States—gradually falling in late spring, then rising sharply in summer—is an illustration of both ineffectual leadership and a failed ideology. Shame is not an emotion that Americans readily indulge, but the spectacle of the national coronavirus case rate surging ahead of India’s and Brazil’s while it declined in most rich countries has produced a wave of self-disgust here, and pity and contempt abroad.
“We’re at this moment where, because of COVID-19, it is there for anybody who has eyes to see that the systems we are committed to are inadequate or have collapsed,” Maurice Mitchell, the director of the left-wing Working Families Party, told me. “So now almost all 300-plus million of us are in this moment of despair, asking ourselves questions that are usually the province of the academy, philosophical questions: Who am I in relation to my society? What is the role of government? What does an economy do? ”
The brutal statistics that count the jobless, hungry, evicted, sick, and dead have forced a rethinking of our political and social arrangements. The numbers are a daily provocation for change— radical change. “I think we are at a hinge moment in history; it’s one of those moments that arises every 50 years or so,” Senator Michael Bennet, of Colorado, told me. “We have the opportunity to set the stage for decades of progressive work that can improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans.” The crises of 2020 could become the catalytic agent of a national transformation.
Nothing about this opportunity is inevitable, or even likely. The election could end in confusion and chaos, or in another stunning upset for Donald Trump and his party. If Joe Biden wins, a continued Republican Senate majority could obstruct his policies even more than a Republican minority did President Barack Obama’s. Even a Democratic White House and Congress could encounter ferocious resistance from an opposition party and conservative infrastructure grasping for lost power. Pressure from organized money in the worlds of finance and tech could sap the Democrats’ reformist zeal. The left’s penchant for splittism could break the party into warring factions. On a deeper level, our institutions might have calcified to the point that they’re no longer able to realize far-reaching reforms. The public could lapse back into cynicism and distrust made all the more enervating by raised expectations.
Eventually, the country will need a sane and healthy Republican Party. But for any kind of national renewal to take place, the Republicans must first suffer a crushing defeat in November. A Democratic administration and Congress must quickly pass bold legislation for economic relief, job creation, social protections, and voting rights. But a new era won’t arrive like a pendulum that swings according to the laws of physics. It will take more than the triumph of a candidate, a party, or even a sweeping agenda. The obstacles are greater than just politics, and so is the opportunity. Our collapse is so complete that the field lies open—the philosophical questions brought on by despair allow us to reimagine what kind of country we can be. The familiar narratives are used up; the dried-out words stick in our mouths. For change to endure, for national shame to become pride, we need a radical agenda with a patriotic spirit. We have to revive the one thing that has ever held together this sprawling, multiplicitous country: democratic faith.
OUR COLLAPSE IS SO COMPLETE THAT THE FIELD LIES OPEN— THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS BROUGHT ON BY DESPAIR ALLOW US TO REIMAGINE WHAT KIND OF COUNTRY WE CAN BE.
The presidential primaries that opened the year gave an impression of bitter disagreement among the Democratic candidates. Hours of televised debate time were consumed with the merits of Medicare for All versus Medicare for All Who Want It, the difference between treating undocumented immigrants humanely and decriminalizing southern-border crossings, the intricacies of Biden’s position on busing in the 1970s.
Today those arguments seem like an irrelevant scholastic exercise. One notable effect of this year’s crises has been to forge broad Democratic support for the most ambitious domestic policy agenda since the Great Society, with Biden as its unlikely standard-bearer.
The coronavirus arrived just as Biden was wrapping up the Democratic nomination in March. By mid-April, 30,000 Americans had died and 22 million were newly out of work. A group of advisers had begun speaking to the candidate by phone and video conference about his priorities for fighting both catastrophes. The advisers then turned for ideas to people outside the campaign, in labor unions, universities, think tanks, and small businesses.
In early May, Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote an essay called “A New Social Contract for the 21st Century.” She sent a draft to the Biden campaign, which received it favorably. Her argument came directly from the experience of the pandemic: “Our response to this virus … is only as strong as our weakest link. It binds our fates together, more so than any economic or natural disaster.” Tanden proposed revising the deal among citizens, corporations, and the state in ways that address the weaknesses exposed by COVID-19. A “new social contract” would give more protections to individuals in the form of universal benefits—paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, health care with the option of joining Medicare. It would demand more responsibility from corporations, obliging them to revise their charters and take into account the interests of workers and local communities as much as those of shareholders (who bear economic risk only until a financial crisis or pandemic necessitates a taxpayer bailout). And it would require enormous amounts of government spending to end mass unemployment by creating millions of jobs in manufacturing, caregiving, education, and clean energy. Tanden framed her policy ideas as an updating of the New Deal, the original social contract that significantly strengthened the role of government in order to shift the burden of economic risk from the individual to the collective.
The ideas in Tanden’s essay are not new. Most of them have been circulating for years in policy papers put out by liberal think tanks and in the stillborn bills of congressional Democrats. Their philosophical basis goes back at least a century. Political transformations don’t happen when a blindingly original insight flashes across the sky. The New Deal itself, for all of President Franklin D. Roose velt’s openness to experimentation, mainly brought to fruition seeds that had been planted by Populists and Progressives over the previous four decades. The Reagan revolution realized conservative ideas that had originated in the period after World War II. In the face of institutional inertia, politics requires a long game—something that the modern American right has understood better than the left. Milton Friedman, an intellectual force behind Reaganism, once wrote:
Only a crisis—actual or perceived— produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
While Biden’s campaign was still formulating its domestic policies, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, and the country erupted in protests against racial injustice. “The vice president looked at all that and said, ‘How I respond in the face of these will be presidency-defining,’ ” Jake Sullivan, a senior adviser, told me. “ ‘I want a response that meets the moment and is true to who I have been in the campaign and over my career.’ ”
In the primaries, Biden had presented himself as the candidate of the Obama years. But the historical clock never rewinds, and the status quo ante is unequal to the desperate now. In response to the pandemic and the protests, Biden’s lines changed.
Over the summer, as the virus surged, the recession deepened, and the streets filled, Biden gave a series of speeches in which he laid out the heart of his economic plan, under the rubric “Build Back Better.” For decades, political leaders have grasped for a programmatic brand name as memorable as “New Deal” or “Great Society”—but who remembers Bill Clinton’s “New Covenant,” George W. Bush’s “Ownership Society,” or Barack Obama’s “New Foundation”? They soon vanished, because they never came to life in transformative legislation. Slogans stick when they’re attached to programs that change the country. There will never be such a thing as Bidenism—because Biden himself has no ideology, no politics distinctly his own—but his policies deserve a more memorable name. Quoting a Depression-era poem by Langston Hughes, and sticking it to the incumbent, Biden could call his agenda “Make America Again.” The words don’t order us back, like Trump’s, to a glorious age that never was. They speak to an idea that has to be continuously renewed: “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be!”
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