UNPREPARED AND OVERWHELMED
A NATION CALLED ITS GOVERNMENT AND NO ONE ANSWERED
I have just finished a couple of weeks on the road in Texas during which time the Coronavirus pandemic blew up across the American landscape. The best sign that something serious was happening while I was on the road was the number of guys in truck stop and convenience store restrooms washing their hands after taking a leak who looked like this was a first-time experience for them. Otherwise, there is nothing funny about what is going on.
It will be quite some time before America and much of the rest of the world will be able to put this pandemic behind them. In the meantime, we will all be touched in some way by this disease and many are likely to lose friends and loved ones. In the short-term, most of us will have to live more modest and restricted lives. Surely, some of the touchstones of well-being will be badly disrupted. Some will learn more about hygiene. Some will experience personal vulnerability for the first time. And many will have their routines disrupted, their meager incomes stretched beyond the breaking point, and their “safety net” melt away because it never existed in the first place.
It is way too early to tell much about the progression of this pandemic in America, and much must be done each day to try to reverse its course. However, it is also a really good time for a long overdue reality check on the state of the union.
The best news is that it may be the end of Trump and the Republican Party. The right-wing in America has had its day, and now America will pay a heavy price for buying into the notion that government is the problem. Ever since Ronald Reagan dropped that poisonous pill into the political mix, it has become a mantra for way too many, even as those among them greedily seek government assistance when it seems to benefit them. Only the most crazed tell the cops to go away while the home invasion is ongoing in their own home.
Now we have a massive collective need for a strong federal response to a very dangerous pandemic, and nobody is at the helm. Not only has there been no leadership, but the ranks of those who could respond have been dangerously thinned and available federal resources mindlessly diminished. Responsible state and local governments will try to pick up the pieces, but way too many states and localities have fallen prey to the diminished governance syndrome.
Maybe in this time of need, leaders will step up. But they will have decades of negligence to overcome in the healthcare “system” alone. Bernie Sanders has reminded us almost every day that there are over 87 million human beings in the United States who are uninsured or underinsured, severely limiting their access to meaningful healthcare.** Now, all of sudden, a lot more people are listening because it is them and disease is at their door. Others are listening because they understand that both the human and economic cost of a dysfunctional healthcare “system” will now be borne by all of us. Even some who have insured access to meaningful healthcare are likely to suffer when that access is denied amid the chaos.
No one knows how long this pandemic will extend nor how damaging it will be to the nation and the world. However, one thing we can hope for in America is that this time, finally, the nation has had to confront its demons and somehow will manage to find the resources to do so. When this is over, please don’t tell me again that we can’t afford universal access to meaningful healthcare, that we can’t afford to eradicate homelessness and hunger from our land, that we can’t afford to educate every child seeking to learn, and that we can’t afford to meet the now-obvious infrastructure demands of a modern nation. This time, the only thing we can’t afford to do is quickly forget what we learned and quickly forget the often-forgotten and most vulnerable among us.
After the present crisis touches so many, including many who often seem immune from crisis, the challenge will be to mobilize the caring to overwhelm the indifferent. This will require, at a minimum, getting Trump and the right-wing zealots out of the way quickly so that the hard slog can begin toward a reassertion of good governance and a rebirth of good government. This is the essential driver of the collective will to simply make things better for so many with so little.
I worry that America is so deeply divided that even a common enemy cannot unite us and that each camp will learn vastly different lessons from its own echo chamber. It is still hard for the “Make America Great Again” crowd to absorb the slowly emerging awareness in their bubble that maybe America was never so great at meeting the fundamental needs of its citizens, likely not even as good as South Korea and maybe just as bad as Italy.
What went wrong is that Americans stopped demanding good governance, rushing instead to less government. Our democracy failed when government was driven to failure. Those who invested throughout America’s history in a faith in democratic norms understood that the balanced institutional framework they created and nurtured was fragile.
It is broken now. When this pandemic crisis passes, America will have to pick up the pieces of its failed institutional foundation and rebuild it to be much better equipped to meet the modern challenges of the nation and the globe. If we can succeed at this, maybe America can be truly great for the first time.