The pandemic has revealed the fault lines in American politics, we’re told. That’s probably true. Herewith a decidedly dystopian snapshot. Simply put, our communal ties are frayed, perhaps irreparably.
Cicero observed that a republic, or commonwealth, was more than a simple collection of people bound together by common interests; members of a republic also shared a common conception of right.
Put in contemporary terms, members of a republic share a commitment to a sense of the legitimacy of public institutions; they believe that a social order, though imperfect, is at least acceptable.
My sense is that there is no longer a consensus about legitimacy in the United States. In times of prosperity, a people can stumble along united by mere common interests. Scarcity forces people’s hands, however. A collapsed economy pushes folks back into their corners; they come out swinging in support of their various conceptions of right once the crisis passes.
But first, what is legitimacy? It is the sense that assertions of power by public institutions are more than naked displays of force. Legitimacy transforms power into authority. We justify authority by resort to various narratives, collective stories or histories, that unite us.
Here’s what we’re learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fault lines in American politics are severe. Neither the right nor the left has any real allegiance to common norms. Once the dust settles, the danger of dissolution of the republic is real.
I watched the 2016 election with a sense of fascination and dread. When it all began, I never imagined that Donald Trump could win. When it was over, I had voted for him. In the years since, I’ve watched rancor simmer and partisan divide become deeper.
In the end, the fact that Trump won seemed less interesting than what made his victory possible. What sorts of conditions made him seem like an acceptable candidate to enough voters to put him in the White House?
I think I now know the answer: A death wish. Simply put, a sizable number of Americans would rather see the republic collapse than see it rejuvenated by commitments they do not or cannot share. The one percent has opted out of the community, separating themselves behind moats of wealth and privilege. The rest of us seek succor in communities that reflect our particular values, or identities. The very terms we use to seek power reek of division.
I marveled on a recent trip to Columbia University, where I spent six years as a graduate student. The library has long carried the names of great poets and philosophers chiseled in stone across the front, proudly declaring that it was a home of great ideas, ideas that made our civilization, Western civilization, distinctive. I spent a few years as a young man teaching a course called “Contemporary Civilization” to undergraduates at Columbia. We read Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau. My role was to introduce the students to an old tradition of questions and potential answers to such questions as what made government legitimate. I am proud of those years.
But now it’s as though a cultural coup has taken place. A banner over the portal of the library reflects names of others, contemporary writers all, most either women or persons decidedly not “old white men.”
How’d that happen?
Ah, yes. The culture wars. The old white men lost the most current round.
And now, in the wake of the corona pandemic, the wars continue. When the first round of payroll protection funding ran out, Congress needed to reauthorize funding. There was the NAACP and others asking for minority set asides. There’s Van Jones on CNN claiming the virus is a virtual racist. We must remake the economy in the end to serve the needs of yesteryear’s victims. The claim for reparations – race-based taxes – is not far away.
My law firm did not make the first round of payroll funding. The money ran out. I watched the discussion of minority set-asides for loans and asked myself, what if the second round runs dry? Am I too white to save? I turned away from the debate in disgust.
The fact is, we no longer have a common conception of right in this country. We are recasting our history, requiring a new narrative be told about our founding and the ebb and flow of events that have brought us to the present. The exercise is not neutral or detached. It is driven by the interests and passions of those telling the narratives.
Here’s the message I’m receiving: If you’re white, in particular a white male, you just can’t be right. A history of racism, sexism, and other forms of privileges must be unmasked, undone and the social contract renegotiated. Distributive justice requires new priorities, new polices, new laws and the creation of new communities.
The pandemic is a call, an opportunity to start anew.
Maybe it is, for those who believe the pre-pandemic world was diseased and not worth saving. The pandemic is, for some, just the opportunity they were waiting for.
For others, the pandemic is a horrifying act of nature without moral purpose or pedagogical aim. Aristotle was a good teacher, and our institutions, though flawed, remain sound. There are many who will simply opt out of a new world of race-based taxes and social justice projects based on a rejection of the past.
Can these warring groups live together in peace?
That’s an open question, in my mind. I have my doubts. Folks tolerate Trump because he rejects a future they don’t want to share. Trump’s detractors are eager to remake the world. I smell discord, and something approaching civil war. The pandemic is a mere accelerant to long-simmering tensions.