The United States faces its third great crisis of the 21st century. Like the civil war in the 19th century and the Depression and the Second World War in the twentieth, the successive events of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, and now, the COVID-19 epidemic and its economic consequences have tested the idea upon which the United States was founded: that a government by, of, and for the people, acting through elected representatives, can deal effectively with great problems and open the way for a better life. Nineteen years after 9/11 (and nearly 28 years after the election of Bill Clinton), the same Boom generation remains ultimately in charge. The outcome of the crises of 2001 and 2008 do not bode well for what will happen in the next year.
A little less than a year before 9/11, the Republican party leadership and its selections on the Supreme court had demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to disregard established procedures in order to secure power. Rather than settle one of the closest elections in American history by making sure the votes in Florida were counted as accurately as possible, they managed to stop recounts, allowing the Supreme Court to award the election to George W. Bush by a 5-4 vote. Eventually a private count indicated that Gore had in fact won. By that time, however, 9/11--the Boom generation's big moment in foreign affairs--had taken place. The neoconservatives that ran the foreign policy of the Bush II administration used it to embark upon a crusade to remove hostile regimes and impose democracy on the Middle East. That crusade now lies in ruins, as Afghanistan and Iraq both struggle with chaos, and authoritarianism rules most of the Middle East again. At the same time, that Administration threw away a federal budget surplus with two rounds of tax cuts, creating a permanent deficit. Yet for the most part, the Obama Administration continued the foreign policies of the Bush administration. It did withdraw from Iraq--only to re-enter a few years later--but it also temporarily expanded the war in Afghanistan, and undertook two more disastrous attempts at regime change, in Libya and in Syria, The Arab spring led to a reimposition of dictatorship in Egypt. The Bush II administration also moved away from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and agreed to let Israel retain at least some territory occupied in 1967. Now the Israeli government is poised to annex much of it.
The financial crisis of 2008 showed the folly of deregulating Wall Street and the banking system and throwing away the restraints that had been imposed in the Great Depression. An insane real estate bubble burst, revealing a highly unstable pyramid of debt and threatening the whole world economy. The American political process played a relatively small role in getting out of the crisis. Political leaders, economists, bankers and financial leaders from the Boom generation got together to use the Federal Reserve Board and a Congressional guarantee to provide the private institutions that had destroyed themselves with liquidity to ride out the crisis. Despite some tepid efforts at reform, this left our financial giants more powerful than ever. The Obama Administration had to agree to rounds of deficit reduction that further reduced the federal government's role in our lives, and it did not do enough for the average American voter to create anything like a new Democratic majority. Then the catastrophic presidential election of 2016 showed that neither political establishment could provide a candidate who could defeat a reality tv star with a catastrophic record as an entrepreneur.
In the succeeding three years, virtually the whole Republican Party has lined up behind Donald Trump, despite his obvious incompetence and disrespect for the norms of civilized political behavior and the rule of law. The Democrats have managed to regain control of the House of Representatives and a few state houses, but the Republicans have gained more and more power over the courts and have become more and more militant within the states they control. And now comes the COVID-19 epidemic.
It is now clear, I think, that the epidemic has made the state of our politics worse than ever. As bad luck would have it, it hit first, and by far most seriously, in the nerve center of the national Democratic Party, the northeast. Because of drastic measures that have crippled our economy, the virus's spread there has now slowed dramatically--but they are still increasing in the heartland, where a big majority of new infections are now taking place. The red states still have a very long way to go before their cases and deaths per million will reach the levels of New York, New Jersey, and southern New England, but they are increasing. And now the parties and the regions where they are strongest are splitting on the issue of re-opening the economy. In my opinion, however, the effects of the epidemic have passed beyond the control of our political leaders. No matter how quickly the economy officially re-opens, relatively few people will start once again going to restaurants, traveling by air, or training in their local gym. That means that a great many laid-off people will remain unemployed, creating new mortgage crises in both personal and commercial real estate. Brick and mortar retailers, already hurt badly by amazon and by private equity takeovers, will fall further faster. The rich will get even richer and the poor poorer. I am not optimistic that our deeply divided and increasingly oligarchic nation will be able to come up with either short- or long-term solutions to these problems. I suspect that within a year, a strong case will emerge for a universal basic income, funded by a wealth tax, but our economic and political powers that be will probably oppose both. I feel sure that we will have gotten beyond the medical consequences of the epidemic long before we get over the economic ones.
It is too soon to say whether the November election can turn things around. Joe Biden, like George H. W. Bush and Al Gore, is a product of the modern political system: he failed as a presidential candidate on his own, but became a party leader by serving as Vice President. At a time when the nation clearly needs a capable and decisive executive like Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Party is fielding a candidate without real executive experience. Biden is nearly old enough (though not quite) to remember V-J day, and he still wants to restore the relatively decorous political environment that he found in Washington when he became a Senator in 1973. That era is long over and we need to create something new. Donald Trump is becoming more and more irresponsible and hysterical as the crisis goes on, and the polls suggest that the country is tired of him. But Trump is also preparing the way for a new controversy over the validity of the results of the coming election, which may create another great crisis at least as serious as 2000. This time certain state governments might even find themselves divided over the validity of their results.
The 80-year cycle that has given us the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the era of Franklin Roosevelt has been bound up with the whole experiment of the Enlightenment. In each crisis, reason helped us solve certain critical problems and thus created a new consensus that lasted until the next one. Yet the rational solutions that the mid-20th century developed to solve our economic problems seem to have made too many powerful interests unhappy to have lasted. A new postwar generation also rebelled against the authority and discipline, in virtually every area of life, that had gotten us where we were when they were born. Last but hardly least, a powerful revolt against the Enlightenment developed where it should have been strongest, in universities. It has weakened them so much that many of them, too, are unlikely to survive the coming economic crisis. The epidemic itself poses a tremendous test for our for-profit health care system. Can our drug companies take the necessary time to develop effective vaccines and/or treatment for COVID-19, rather than yielding to enormous political and economic pressure to declare the problem solved prematurely? All these questions will be answered, one way or another, in the next few years.