Seeing the Moment, Clearly

In case it wasn’t already clear, given the still-raging pandemic, ongoing economic disasters, and omnipresent political dysfunction, the events of the past few days make it obvious that we’re living through unsettled times.

We’ve heard some variation on this theme so often over the past several months, in sappy commercials and carefully worded corporate emails, that it starts to lose its force. Despite this sentiment’s ubiquity, I don’t think the full implications of living through a multifaceted upheaval of this kind have fully sunk in, least of all among the people who are theoretically in a position to do something meaningful about it. This is a global challenge, but the United States in particular is facing a series of interrelated crises. This is not a singular problem, but a whole bunch of them, which have entangled and mutually reinforced each other. So what are they?

1) The pandemic. With everything else going on, it’s almost easy to forget that COVID-19 is still a thing, but it is. Cases are still going up across large swathes of the country, and while we’ve mostly managed to avoid an overwhelmed healthcare system, that outcome is still on the table. There’s absolutely no reason to think this is going to die down, particularly with more and more places re-opening. It’ll continue to flare up around the country until - or even after - a vaccine becomes available. That’s leaving aside the likely event of a seasonal recurrence in the fall and winter.

2) A massive shock to the real economy. However well the financial side of the economy has functioned over the past couple of months, thanks largely to the Fed’s rapid and thorough response (on which Nathan Tankus’s work is essential), the real economy has taken a huge series of blows. There are multiple layers here, but at the core, this is a demand crisis: People aren’t buying goods and especially services. If they’re not buying goods and services, the people providing those goods and services are likewise not buying goods and services, and so on, affecting everything from home purchases to barbershops. Unless you’re in the grocery business, you work for a tech giant, or you make home fitness equipment, chances are that your outlook isn’t as sunny as it was a few months prior.

This is now partially abating as consumer spending ticks back upward, but the damage is already done: Lots of businesses (especially small ones) are going to be gone for good, tons of jobs have disappeared, and the fall in tax revenues has triggered draconian government spending cuts, which means lost jobs and further depressed consumer spending. On top of all that, there’s a real question as to how much political will exists for the government to continue a robust program of public assistance in the midst of all this. Cash payouts are propping up the real economy for the moment, but if (for whatever reason) they don’t continue, there’s a lot of potential for a drastically worsened outlook.

3) The political crisis. Leaving aside the current occupant of the White House, there are long-term and ongoing structural issues at various levels of American government. At this point, enumerating these problems is like playing a particularly unproductive game of whack-a-mole, but briefly: a) legislative paralysis; b) minoritarian institutional leanings; c) overseas wars conducted without effective oversight; d) vast partisan gaps on practically every issue; and e) a deepening crisis of political legitimacy.

The last of these seems most salient to me at the moment, largely because it’s foundational to the others. Political systems don’t function especially well if the actors in them - voters, politicians, etc. - don’t agree that they’re legitimate, i.e. that the people in positions of power have the authority to do what they’re doing. That’s the baseline thing that allows a political system of any kind, whether it’s a representative republic, a pure democracy, or an authoritarian dictatorship, to function. If people routinely stop to question whether they have to pay taxes, follow the laws, or obey an official, or the state has to use force to get people to comply, the systems don’t work. This brings us around to…

4) Civil unrest. This is the thing that’s most obvious right now, and it’s a product of the way these other three ongoing crises have interacted with longstanding inequalities and problems across society. People generally don’t go out into the street to protest or riot without some deeply held and long-term grievances: not things that have become salient in weeks or months, but over years and decades. There are a lot of angry people in the United States, for reasons both better and worse, and these underlying tensions have boiled over in a moment of extreme social stress.

That’s the basic dynamic here. There are cracks, deep ones, throughout our society, and they’re breaking wide open as the pandemic and its immediate consequences place pressure on various systems and institutions. The death of George Floyd was a lit match, but the events and processes of many past years have already turned the country into a keg of gunpowder.

So many people are under unprecedented financial strain. They’re stuck at home, doing precarious jobs or none at all. The political systems and institutions that are supposed to be responding to all these stressors aren’t exactly doing a bang-up job of handling things. When you throw a brutal, completely unjustifiable police killing into the mix, the results aren’t surprising.

The Upshot

I’m a historian, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a variety of past crises and breakdowns - from the end of the Roman Republic and Empire to the Reformation - over the course of my professional career. But jumping straight to historical examples and comparisons doesn’t help, and is in fact actively counterproductive, if we’re not crystal-clear about what we’re actually analyzing. In subsequent posts, I’ll be talking about some parallels and what they can (and can’t) tell us, from the chaotic last days of the Roman Republic to the Wars of the Roses and beyond.

For now, though, I think it’s important to bear this in mind: Whatever is happening at this specific moment isn’t the end, but the beginning. There are seeds being sown right now in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, and many other places that will only ripen in the weeks, months, and years to come. Some of that harvest is sure to be bitter; other parts of it will hopefully be less so.

Stay safe and be well.

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