There are two images coming from what remains of the free press, the only institution formally enshrined in our federal Constitution that remains minimally operative, that should shake everyone who wants to save this country awake.
The first is that of thousands of cars snaking around food distribution points in our major cities, carrying people with still enough money for gas in their tank but not enough money for food in the bank. This is a sight replicated nowhere else in the world.
The second is that of voters in Wisconsin, forced to spend hours waiting in line to cast ballots in a primary election that will determine, not principally the candidates for president, but the composition of the state’s Supreme Court. The election, like those in every other state where an April primary was due, had been postponed for public health reasons in the COVID-19 pandemic by the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers. The governor was overruled by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature, backed up by the state’s Republican-dominated Supreme Court and seconded by the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court. The election proceeded.
In the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, five of 180 polling stations were open. Suppose you gave an election and no one showed up to take your ballot? We’ve just seen one.
Let’s take a second look at our images and what they mean.
The reason why millions of Americans are publicly begging for bread is that roughly half the country lives from paycheck to paycheck, and those checks have stopped coming as mass firings by businesses that can’t open their doors have ramped up unemployment levels to Great Depression levels in a matter of weeks. Officially, 17 million Americans have lost their jobs, and with it not only their livelihood but the healthcare benefits attached to them as well. No one believes this number to be accurate, but the true count rises daily. Projections are that one-third of the country could be unemployed within a few months. That would exceed the worst levels of the Great Depression, which produced Franklin D. Roosevelt in America but Adolf Hitler in Germany.
And our Hitler stand-in is already in office, whose Attorney General wants virtually unlimited spying on the public and the right to imprison without charge.
Why aren’t there breadlines in Europe, several of whose countries — Italy, Spain, Britain and now France — have been hit as hard by the coronavirus as we have?
In those countries, beginning with France, the central governments have been paying workers their wages to keep them employed. Their jobs, in short, are frozen in place, so that they can return to them as public health conditions permit.
That makes obvious sense. Except in America. The relief package cobbled together here provides for direct payments to Americans on a sliding scale of income, but no help for them to go back to the jobs they’ve been laid off from. It is the difference between keeping idle machinery oiled and in place, and throwing it out to start all over — if there’s anyone left, with 30 million small businesses at risk, to do the starting.
Needless to say, the checks are not in the mail and may take months to arrive. People must figure out how to eat in the meantime, which means joining the breadline. Small business loans are similarly bogged down in government agencies that can’t begin to handle the application load.
We are not just recreating the Great Depression by government fiat. We are creating the mother of all depressions, which will reduce large sections of the world’s biggest economy to poverty. Not to worry, though: China stands ready to replace us.
You might say that we are committing national suicide. Except that not everyone is planning to die.
Before the coronavirus struck, the United States had a level of income inequality exceeded by only a handful of countries in the world. And with many of the world’s best medical laboratories and biggest hospitals, we stood 175th in access to healthcare. The logical trajectory for a country such as ours is a subject population reduced to pauperism and dependent on the sufferance of elites that extract such labor as they require in return for the terms of survival.
We’ve been having this conversation for some time, with the focus on the interests of the superwealthy 1 percent pitted against those of the 99 percent that began with the Occupy Movement nearly a decade ago. This distinction was essentially a political one, since a sizable middle class still existed, with about one-fifth of the population believing itself more or less comfortable and secure. The financial crash of 2008 showed how vulnerable that security might be, and with its government-sponsored transfer of trillions of dollars to corporate America, it accelerated the country’s already surging economic disparity. The coronavirus is that crash on steroids.
In theory, a democratic electorate could reverse all this, or at least moderate it. In practice, our two-party system has never, except in times of extreme crisis, diverged from service to economic elites, and even then only to rescue those elites from themselves. The Democratic Party is now about to nominate for the second presidential cycle in a row its worst and weakest candidate, having strong-armed Bernie Sanders out of the race. Voter suppression, which arguably brought Donald Trump to power four years ago, is poised to do so again, especially with the movement against mail balloting in the midst of the pandemic. Americans were able to put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House in 1932. The one candidate who might have emulated him is now no longer actively running. Whether there will actually be an election in November, one worthy of the name, is up in the air.
COVID-19, unless it is permitted to get completely out of control, is not our central problem. Its economic and political effects almost certainly will be. Other countries have shown how to mitigate these. We have not followed suit. It ought to beggar the mind that tens of millions of our fellow citizens will soon find themselves without the means to afford food or medical care in the midst of the greatest health crisis in a century. It appears to be only our imagination that is beggared instead.