The collective response to major catastrophes often proceeds in stages. Stage One is denial. Thankfully, this stage is largely over for the coronavirus crisis, save for a few nuts. Now we’re transitioning, in fits and starts, from Stage Two to Stage Three.
Stage Two is the “COVID-19 confirms my priors” period. For many Democrats, the roaring economy of eight weeks ago was the perfect time to cancel student debt, establish a $15 minimum wage, implement “Medicare for All,” etc. A runaway pandemic and the start of a massive shutdown of the economy only made it more obvious that these “priors” were absolutely necessary.
For many Republicans, the booming economy was the perfect time to push for tax cuts, immigration restrictions, a new Cold War orientation toward China and a declaration of war on the media for being mean to the president. And lo and behold, as the coronavirus spread, they, too, believed their ideas were all the more justified.
Just because these policies are priors doesn’t mean they are necessarily ill-suited to the moment. For instance, canceling some student debt makes more sense now than before, and a major rethinking of our economic entanglement with China seems overdue. But this has more to do with serendipity than critical thinking.
Sometimes we get stuck in Stage Two. Shortly after 9/11, Sen. Chuck Schumer bowed to Democratic form when he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post arguing that the “era of a shrinking federal government is over.” (He called, familiarly, for a “new New Deal.”)
George W. Bush, who ran for president arguing for a “humble” foreign policy, reverted to the conservative foreign policy establishment’s preference for regime change and nation-building. Both priors prevailed, not to our particular benefit.
This isn’t to say that both sides don’t try their best to deal with emergencies. But just as the stockpile of masks and ventilators isn’t adequate for the sudden demand, the same holds for the storehouse of policies we could put into effect right now.
Or, to be more fair to the wonks who warned about some of these problems, there’s a lag time in getting new and better policies into production.
What Stage Three of the coronavirus crisis will look like remains murky. Andrew Yang’s quest for universal cash payments to Americans seemed quixotic just weeks ago.
Now it looks like the bedrock of a new policy agenda. The traditional Republican resistance to interference in corporate decision-making is being worn away by the hour, and once swept aside it seems unlikely to return in nearly as robust a form.
A new consensus may be quickly forming that government should have a much bigger say in how supply chains are structured, regardless of the corporate bottom line. It’s almost certain that the US pharmaceutical industry’s dependence on China for basic medicinal ingredients won’t survive.
Other responses are still in the early stages, and big questions will need to be addressed, from how we should deploy the Defense Production Act to how to reconcile our federalist structure with public health crises.
Perhaps oddly, I find myself wondering — and worrying — about Stage Four. How will things look when this is all over? What will be the new normal? Will the handshake ever return? What emergency measures now will be our everyday reality years from now?
Tax withholding was invented to collect revenue during World War II. The imperial presidency was created to give FDR more power to fight the Great Depression.
This pandemic will no doubt have a similarly long tail. The foundation of the property laws of Anglosphere nations was a response to the crisis of the plague.
One of my priors is the idea that our political parties are overdue for a major transformation. The coalitions that constitute them are unstable and combustible. The ideas that once bound them together are frayed. This crisis will put even more strain on these already feeble institutions.
It’s too soon to tell if this assessment will be confirmed, but I’d take bets that after this is all over, political scientists, like so many others, will be writing about B.C. and A.C. — before coronavirus and after.