Will Pandemic Finally Unleash The American Populist Revolution?

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McDonald’s employees and supporters protest outside a McDonald’s in Los Angeles, California, April 6, 2020 demanding pay for quarantine time and healthcare for workers who get sick from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Authored by Robert Merry

American Conservative

We know what kind of threat the coronavirus poses to the health of America and the world. We know it will ravage the global economy and unleash widespread financial hardship. We are seeing the social disruption it creates and can discern prospects for much higher levels of disruption in the future.

What we have perhaps not sufficiently contemplated is COVID-19’s capacity to upend the political status quo in America. This kind of scourge often generates political turmoil, and turmoil often unravels the status quo of a society or polity. This is particularly true when the status quo already is under severe strain, as the American status quo has been for years.

What is the American status quo? It is the nation and its perceived global mission crafted after the end of the Cold War by America’s newly emergent meritocratic elite. In international relations, the fundamental tenets of this vision were the intrinsic virtue of America’s “benign” hegemony, globalism, free trade, a commitment to spreading democracy around the world, and an abiding faith in the country’s ability to salve the hurts and wounds of humanity.

In domestic terms, the status quo has been characterized by relatively porous borders, the financialization of the U.S. economy, deindustrialization, anti-nationalism, a liberal political hegemony on social and cultural issues enforced through political correctness, and an oligarchy of bigness–Wall Street’s big finance, Washington’s big government, big corporations throughout the country, big labor representing increasingly well-off public employees, and self-aggrandizing state and local governments.

This status quo is facing increasing hostility from vast numbers of ordinary Americans who feel that the elites and the big institutions they dominale have hijacked the American system for their own exploitation. In his Wall Street Journal column the other day, Walter Russell Mead suggested a good way of assessing the magnitude of this anti-establishment sentiment would be to combine Donald Trump’s political base (about 43 percent of the electorate, by most assessments) with Bernie Sanders’s base (36 percent of Democratic voters in the latest Real Clear Politics poll average; hence, 13 percent of the electorate). That, he said, suggests that fully 55 percent of U.S. voters “now support politicians who openly despise the central assumptions of the political establishment.”

This knot of political hostility stems from the perceived follies perpetrated over the last half-century or so by the meritocratic elite–endless Middle East wars without victory or even much of a point; immigration laxity to the point of serious assimilation challenges; the outsourcing of our industrial capacity to the point where other nations, particularly China, control the distribution of goods and products that are crucial to U.S. military preparedness and citizen safety and health; a student-debt crisis that thwarts upward mobility of the nation’s young; a spree of fiscal irresponsibility that saddles cities and states with irrepressible pension debt while leaving untended massive infrastructure imperatives; and financial disruption throughout Middle America stemming from the hollowing out of the country’s industrial base.

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