Coronavirus has caught America off-guard. One can see it not only in the belated reactions of public officials, but in the confused responses of pundits. As some Fox News presenters played down the crisis, Tucker Carlson urged President Trump to take action. As some liberals said Trump had not done enough, others warned he was about to do too much. Over time, though, the responses seem to have sorted into three broad categories, aligned with the three main tendencies in contemporary politics. The tendencies are inexactly described as centrism, socialism, and populism.
Writers on the centre-left and centre-right trace the crisis to the failings of Donald Trump. On this view, the image of Mike Pence opening a meeting on the virus with prayer shows that the administration relies too much on Jesus and too little on scientific expertise. And Trump’s racist rhetoric shows that xenophobia, not public health, motivated the China travel ban.
At Sunday’s presidential debate, Joe Biden spoke for the centrists. He pledged to “listen to the science” and “listen to the experts”. He promised “results, not a revolution.” Biden appeals to people who believe that Trump is the disease afflicting our body politic, and not the mere symptom of deeper disorders. If we trust our unbiased journalists, listen to the brave men and women of the intelligence community, and heed the advice of the experts, we can defeat coronavirus and the far worse infection of populism.
By contrast, Biden’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, saw coronavirus as another sign of the problems caused by America’s growing inequality. Only Medicare for All can address coronavirus, Sanders argued, because a less comprehensive approach would not cover psychological counselling for a man whose wife contracted the virus. A more convincing argument against our healthcare inequalities could be found, perhaps, in the fact that 58 members of the Utah Jazz basketball team had been tested for coronavirus, in a process that consumed 60 per cent of the tests available that day in Oklahoma, where the team was staying.
A similarly radical diagnosis has been offered by the populist right. For these observers, the pandemic exposes the shortcomings of the liberal international order, which regards free movement as sacred. The spread of the disease shows the need for real border controls. Our inability to mass-produce masks shows that we need to limit our reliance on foreign supply chains. Our reluctance to close schools shows that we need to make it easier to support a family on a single wage.
Some of the populists go farther and propose that the economic devastation caused by closing restaurants and bars would be less severe in a healthier economy. Cities once filled with factories, craftsmen and growing families are now playgrounds for the childless rich, whose decadence supports the mere semblance of an economy. “Creative professionals,” whose forebears built things and fathered children, work bull—- jobs and couple sterilely. They share things on social media rather than with a family. Hospitality, once a virtue practised in the home, has become an industry. Preparing for the next pandemic, then, requires learning from an autarkic past in which Americans produced their own goods, rarely ate out, and lived off what a man made.
Each of these views has something to recommend it. Expertise is required to manage the modern state and economy. Gross inequities in healthcare offend civic republican values as well as socialist ideals. Americans really do work at jobs of questionable value and fail to achieve their desired fertility. It is not clear that any of these views contains the answer to defeating coronavirus, but times of crisis cast longstanding problems into sharp relief.
Perhaps these unsettled times will increase the appeal of certain “populist” ideas, while diminishing the appeal of the populist style. Germany, the supposed leader of the liberal international order, has stated that it plans temporarily to close some of its borders and hopes to acquire greater industrial self-sufficiency. This transformation mirrors one that has already begun on immigration. Europe’s technocratic centrists, who used to favour mass migration, have started proposing stricter border controls. Without acknowledging the change, they have moved toward the views of Viktor Orbán and the AfD.
Even as they adopt populist ideas, the centre eschews populism’s bracing rhetoric. Instead of invoking national destiny or an egalitarian future, they defend these policies in the bloodless rhetoric of moderation, competence, and expertise. This may be just what is desired at a time of crisis: an adjustment led by men whose manner is calm and reassuring.
Such an outcome would be a triumph for populist policies and a disaster for populist parties, which would be deprived of their most popular issues. Of course, it is far easier to shift on immigration than to adopt the more thorough “populist” critique of work-life patterns in the West, just as it is easier to adopt single-payer than it is to endorse economic leveling.
If either the socialists or the populists are right, the centrists’ more cautious adjustments will not be enough.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
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