The Era of Big Government Is Back, Baby!
A robust role for government in the pandemic has given us a liberal moment.
“The era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton’s iconic utterance during his January 1996 State of the Union address was immediately followed by an important caveat that was perhaps not immediately noted because of the roar of delight by Congressional Republicans.
Here is what Clinton said right afterward:
But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left fending for themselves. We must go forward as one America, one nation working together, to meet the challenges we face together.President Bill Clinton
Lost for the ages, Clinton’s statement sounds tailor-made for pandemic politics…if we only had a president who gave a damn.
A Liberal Moment
Previous liberal moments that come to mind–the 2018 midterms, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama’s election and reelection–were events that produced tangible results. This liberal moment is less tangible and therefore ripe for debate. So let me give you my reasons:
1) The state of the economy calls for massive government intervention.
The $1.76 trillion CARES Act and the $1,200 remittance to most Americans would have been unthinkable during the 2007-08 financial crisis. And now, as unemployment becomes intractable, there’s a proposal in Congress with bipartisan co-sponsors (the Republican, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, is a first-term conservative) that unleashes the federal government to guarantee workers’ wages for the duration of the crisis. That’s Bernie Sanders on steroids.
During a virtual event with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton captured the moment:
We’ve gone through a period when I think some people may have forgotten that it really does matter who your mayor is, who your governor is and yes, who your president is.
That kind of leadership may be back in vogue.Hillary Clinton
2) Majorities in both parties support robust government aid to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. The governing party led by Trump seems bent on pursuing unpopular measures.
The New York Times (May 27) has an excellent take on this:
Despite angry protests on the far right, the pandemic has actually lessened the divide among American voters. Large bipartisan majorities favor much more aid to states, localities and workers; believe the federal government has the primary responsibility for ensuring adequate Covid-19 testing; and support a cautious reopening of the economy guided by public health expertise.Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson
On the other hand, Republican leaders seem content to defy the political odds by backing policies that run counter-intuitive to surviving a pandemic. Trump wants to close the post office and thrust voters into dangerous lines at polling places; appealed a judge’s ruling that temporarily enabled thousands of people to maintain food stamp benefits during a time of soaring unemployment; has taken his legal assault on Obamacare to the US Supreme Court amid the most significant health crisis in a century.
3) The fates of consumers and low wage workers (“essential workers”) are tied together more than ever before, exposing consumers to the cruel ways in which low-wage workers are treated.
Low wage workers may be on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, but they’re sure not being treated like “heroes.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, essential front-line workers still lack the protective equipment they need to stay healthy.
The hazard pay dispensed by Amazon, Walmart and large grocery chains has in most cases long expired. According to Axios, around 5,000 workers in meatpacking plants across 19 states have contracted the virus. Similar coronavirus outbreaks have occurred in Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores, among many others. At a single Walmart in Worcester, MA, 81 workers tested positive.
Consumers have become stakeholders in this crisis and they are not amused.
4) For the most part, Americans have celebrated our democracy by voting with their feet.
There have been notable exceptions: The armed-to-the-teeth clowns parading at our state capitals. Some young people, feeling immortal (didn’t we, though?), congregating at pools, beaches and bars over the holiday. These make the headlines but don’t define us.
But if you contemplate what’s being asked of us…the negation of many of life’s pleasures…I believe years from now people who study these things will be genuinely surprised by the voluntary compliance of people unaccustomed to taking orders. Sure, we grumble. But we comply. Our unity has given us a liberal moment.
The life or death part makes it easier to understand.