“The centre cannot hold, things fall apart. Anarchy reigns.” These memorial words were written by the poet W. B. Yeats, in the wake of World War I. The Great War – as it was known – was a global catastrophe that transformed the world and ushered in a series of unintended consequences that created the conditions that gave birth to World War II.
This apocalyptic phrase aptly describes the cascading disruptions and unknown consequences unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. Early on, when the coronavirus initially spread to the United States, the country was already weakened by the diseases of economic inequality, political polarization, and the delegitimization of its core institutions. In short, the United States was and is chronically ill, and like a fragile elder with preexisting health issues the nation is at risk. In this moment of deep crisis, the nation’s long-standing affirmation of the mythical notion of “American Exceptionalism” will not provide the country with a magical vaccination and a reboot to normalcy.
As the virus sweeps through and disrupts every aspect of society, where does this leave us as a country? Because events are moving at such a rapid clip, any definitive assertions are open to question. Be that as it may, certain trends and possibilities can be identified and explored.
Clearly, the upcoming 2020 presidential election has been upended. The election’s outcome is anyone’s guess. To date, president Trump’s response to the pandemic challenge has been myopically self-serving, tepid, and lacking in decisive and informed leadership; undermining the essential bonds of trust and competency in his administration. This clustering of negatives has weakened his chances for reelection.
Intent in bolstering his political and electoral standing, the president appropriated certain “progressive” policy proposals that circulated in the Democratic primaries. For example, Andrew Yang’s proposal to provide U.S. citizens with a direct infusion of cash – which had previously been roundly demonized, by Republicans, as socialistic – is now on the table. This massive income transfer – of approximately $250 billion – is viewed by the Trump administration as a politically useful strategy for reactivating the marketplace, and confronting the dislocations triggered by growing levels of mass unemployment among prospective voters.
During the course of the health emergency, individuals and households have been unduly burdened with paying for viral testing and much needed medical services. This emerging problem – fraught with political consequences – has provided Bernie Sanders’ universal medical provisions proposal with a sheen of politically pragmatic possibilities. For Trump, during this time of great national need, the government’s assistance in paying for burgeoning medical expenses will – of course- generate a net political payout and a semblance of decisive and compassionate leadership. In short, the pandemic is functioning as a proverbial Trojan Horse, opening a back door to “leftish” i.e. ideologically contentious policy shifts. And as the president’s political center falls apart, ironically, he has – for self-serving political purposes – taken implicitly to heart Malcom X’s adage of: “by any means necessary” – minus the explicit social justice backdrop.
On a more chilling and darker vein, the pandemic crisis may well create the political conditions for expanding the president’s emergency executive powers, which could eventually be manipulated to accelerate a shift to an increasingly authoritarian top-down political regime. This scenario would inexorably chip away at the nation’s increasingly fragile democratic veneer, which is already on life support. Undoubtably, rightwing opportunities abound during times of political and social disarray. And as neoconservatives are wont to say: never let a crisis go to waste!
As a nation we are living through an unprecedented crisis, in which the country’s working assumptions and institutional foundations are under siege. Long- and short-term outcomes are an unknowable X factor in the larger political equation. Will the centre continue to fall apart and ensuing anarchy open the gate to a set of regressive and opportunistic political nostrums? This is not beyond the pale. Yet the social dynamics driving history are neither a straight line or predetermined. The current historical arc has many possible entry points – that must be identified post haste- where the righteous multitudes can organize, resist, and fight the power. If not, we may well face – as a nation – a dark Orwellian future. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Arturo-Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former chairperson of the “Newest New Yorker Committee” of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities.