CORONAVIRUS

The Coronavirus Feels Hopeless. Here's A Reason For Hope.

One month since the death of George Floyd and 100 days since lockdowns began, our problems remain vast, but our democratic will is growing stronger.

Over the past two decades, the wealth the United States creates each year has increased more than 67%. 

During that same period, median Black household income has declined by roughly 5% and median Black household wealth has plunged by one-third.  In the last five years, life expectancy for white men has dropped precipitously from suicide and substance abuse, so much so that it has pulled down nationwide figures for the first time since World War I. And in New York City, the richest city in the history of the world, roughly a quarter of a million Asian Americans live in poverty, the highest rate among any racial demographic. 

All of that was happening before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting economic crash. The trends are almost certainly more depressing today. Our government fails different citizens in different ways, but it consistently neglects almost everyone who lives outside the wealthiest 1%. 

And for most of this period, the people of the United States accepted these crimes ― no other word can do justice to such conditions ― as a basic fact of life. There have been protest movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Poor People’s Campaign of the Rev. William Barber to Standing Rock to Ferguson to Baltimore. But most of these uprisings remained local affairs that did not shift the national mood. 

That is no longer the case. One hundred days into the coronavirus pandemic and a month after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, people are still in the streets in seemingly every American city on every night of the week. The country is changing before our eyes.

Polling on police brutality has shifted profoundly. Americans overwhelmingly support the protests, and also now overwhelmingly believe that police treat Black citizens very differently than white citizens ― a dramatic shift from only a few years ago. Even a plurality of Republicans believe that Floyd’s death represents a broader problem in policing.

It’s not just policing. Less than a third of Americans now say they are satisfied with the distribution of wealth in the country. Americans overwhelmingly want the government to alleviate economic inequality now, not at some far-off future time. For people under age 44, support is over 80%.

This energy appears to be permeating electoral politics. The 2020 Democratic Party presidential race was a dispiriting affair. At one point in the fall, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) commanded a lead in the polls, voters suddenly turned on her over her support for Medicare for All. This was not because they opposed Medicare for All. Polling has consistently shown that the party faithful prefer that policy to all other health care reform options. Democrats balked at Warren because they feared a candidate who offered a policy platform that Democrats actually like could not win an American election. 

Fear dominated the entire primary process, culminating in a crushing victory for Joe Biden ― a candidate whose own supporters, in poll after poll, say they are generally not very excited about backing. Only 26% of all voters in a recent New York Times poll said they view Biden “very favorably” ― a figure lower than even President Donald Trump’s pathetic 27%. Turnout in the primaries was decidedly muted, an ominous sign for any political party trying to galvanize support.

The primary exposed a Democratic electorate whose faith in the future was broken ― frightened, defensive and drained of self-confidence. That is not a sustainable outlook for a political party ostensibly devoted to progress and social justice.

But the protests that have swept the country in the last month have invigorated the Democratic electorate into action. They are demanding change in the streets and at the ballot box. The results of Tuesday’s Democratic primaries are a cause for celebration. In the still undecided race for the nomination in New York’s 16th Congressional District, young progressive Jamaal Bowman is trouncing Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) amid record turnout, despite unified support for Engel from the entire House Democratic leadership team, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and even Hillary Clinton.

The party establishment was not afraid of losing Engel’s seat to a Republican. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic and will all but certainly go to Bowman in November. They were instead afraid of change. But the Democratic rank-and-file, at long last, is not. 

In Kentucky, Medicare for All supporter Charles Booker appears to have defeated former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who raised over $40 million to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the fall, only to go down herself to a primary challenger who actually believes in something. Booker raised less than $800,000 for the race, but bonded with voters by marching alongside them in the Louisville protests.

With votes still being tallied, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) leads her progressive challenger Surej Patel by only a few hundred votes, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a longtime target of Wall Street Democrats, has crushed her millionaire challenger, former CNBC personality Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, by a margin of nearly 3-to-1.

We have been living through dark days for American democracy. But for the first time in years, Democratic voters are demanding a better world. They just might get it.

Zach Carter is the author of “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” available now from Random House.

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