Laissez-faire ideologue Ronald Reagan used to delight in mocking the very idea that government should provide health protection, food aid, income support or other public assistance to people in need. The Gipper derided "big government" as both a hopeless bungler and an insatiable beast that devours individual freedom, quipping that, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." The line was a sure-fire crowd pleaser, winning applause and guffaws from those who bought into his demagogic warnings about "creeping socialism."
However, then came COVID-19, and those guffawing at stale jokes about big, bad government have suddenly been drowned out by anxious and angry cries bursting out of practically every ZIP code in our land: "Where the hell is our government?!" It turns out that the right-wing's socialist boogeyman is far less terrifying, even to right-wingers, than the absence of actual socialism when you need it.
People who never before needed food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment checks, etc., are finding themselves in need and in line, personally experiencing the "extravagance" of the system and learning that these programs are an essential investment in the common good.
An unexpected and profound impact of today's horrific coronavirus crisis is that it is quietly prompting a societywide recalibration of the rocky road our nation's power elites have put us on. Here we are—a fantastically rich, ostensibly democratic country filled with masses of smart, creative people who, together, have unlimited potential. Yet, our leaders are so small-minded, incompetent, out of touch and uncaring that they were wholly unprepared for and discombobulated by an inert infectious agent that scientists had specifically warned months ago could spawn a disastrous pandemic.
Mass death and wholesale economic collapse have a way of focusing public attention, not only prompting anger but also leading people to rethink assumptions and start questioning the morality and efficacy of the system itself. Those in charge cannot simply gloss over the societal breakdown they're presiding over, engaging in political blame shifting and butt-covering tweets. Nor can the obvious failure of today's plutocratic policies (social, economic and political) be covered up by ideological assurances that the old free-market magic will soon restore normalcy. Indeed, it's the flagrant ineptitude and inequality of business-as-usual "normal" that people are questioning!
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For about a decade now, America's zeitgeist has steadily been shifting away from resigned acceptance of the anti-democratic corporate order, and now comes the abject failure of that system to cope with (and, initially, even address) the deadly pandemic. The aloof arrogance of the system's profiteers has jolted open the minds of a huge swath of the general public to the reality that "We don't matter." Need respirators? Compete against each other to pay the highest market price. That's how America works, says the present president of the United States. But the times, they are a-changing.
Start with public perception of the social safety net, which has long been belittled by anti-government ideologues as an extravagant giveaway of tax-funded benefits to undeserving layabouts. But now, people who never before needed food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment checks, etc., are finding themselves in need and in line, personally experiencing the "extravagance" of the system and learning that these programs are an essential investment in the common good.
The concept of dependency has also been liberated from the right-wing canard that diabolical government programs victimize participants, hooking them on "free things" and stealing their self-reliance and moral strength. Instead, the contagion has revealed that we're a species of completely interdependent beings — all of us dependent on a collectivist ethos that at the very least (1) strives to keep everyone whom each of us might encounter disease-free and (2) recognizes that, on any given day, the most valuable people in society are not haughty CEOs or billionaire Wall Street financiers but low-paid grocery clerks, EMS responders, food bank staffers, home health aides, delivery workers, immigrant laborers and others on society's front lines. When you can't breathe or you run out of food for your family, you don't call your broker.
And consider the meaning of big, as in "big government." Practically overnight, it has been elevated from the contemptuous corporate connotation of an oozing bureaucratic blob to a meritorious adjective signifying "big enough to do the job at hand." Yes, governments at all levels frequently do grow too big, too intrusive and abusive. This spring, though, we found out what too small looks like. Constant cutbacks in public resources; the rigid, small-minded mentality; and the corporate establishment's determination to keep the status quo have needlessly boxed us into this full-blown coronavirus catastrophe. Those same forces of policy meekness are already pulling back on Washington's inadequate initial steps to stem the people's economic and health crises — even though the clear and present need is to think bigger, be bolder and do more.