Will the pandemic remake American politics?

Conrad Black’s book, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,” authoritatively manages to revise our image of this most famous and important man.

Attacked at the time as being a socialist or revolutionary intent on remaking American society along Bolshevik lines, Black instead sees Roosevelt for what he truly was: A great leader intent on saving capitalism from the great mistakes of the elite class itself.

But Roosevelt only had the chance to implement his New Deal programs because of the sea change that emerged in US politics following on from the Great Depression. As FDR put it: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation” to extricate itself from the economic calamity that had befallen it.

As such, Roosevelt ushered in an era characterized by the unprecedented expansion of government into every aspect of the American people’s lives, as the prior, failed laissez-faire efforts of Herbert Hoover and the hapless Republicans had done precious little to assuage the country’s economic suffering following the stock market crash of 1929.

Roosevelt’s ascendancy, and the course correction in US politics that followed the economic crisis, led the Democrats to take the White House for five straight elections from 1932 to 1952, and to triumph in seven of the nine presidential contests leading up to 1968. This age of big government could never have come about, as Black rightly argues in his book, without the fundamental alteration of US politics that occurred as a result of the Great Depression.

Presently, the glaring failures of the US government in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have me wondering aloud whether another such political sea change is upon us. For the great confinement Americans have all just endured as a result of two years of failed government policy has obviously failed to work.

Locking down the country — originally designed merely as a stopgap measure to keep our imperiled health system afloat during the first, fraught days of the pandemic in March 2020 — neither managed to stop the spread of the virus nor prevent the tragically large number of deaths that followed.

At the same time, the actions of Western governments in blindly making the lockdown tactic an enduring one-size-fits-all policy — despite marked differences in how age primarily determined COVID outcomes, and even the differing characteristics of the various variants of the virus — have done uncontested damage to Western economies.

According to McKinsey, the global economy as a whole could suffer $35 trillion in losses by 2025. The great confinement failed in every respect — as a measure to stop the spread of the virus or to limit deaths — even as it nobbled the world’s economy.

It is also without doubt that the billions of dollars of new US government spending, designed to compensate a workforce that has been artificially sent home for much of the past two years, has let loose the beast of inflation on the US, which has been successfully chained for the past two generations thanks to the heroic efforts of Paul Volcker, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, and President Ronald Reagan.

As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers presciently makes clear, the US government cannot increase new public spending by about 14-15 percent of gross domestic product in an economy running at just below pre-COVID-19 strength and not expect to stimulate inflation. It is as simple, and as devastating, as that.

The social costs of lockdown are also becoming clearer and they are equally pernicious. In terms of individual liberty, Western governments — fundamentally misunderstanding the basic Lockean nature of representative democracy, that an individual’s basic rights come from nature and not from the state — instead bewilderingly turned the system back-to-front. Only if an individual did as the government demanded were they somehow “worthy” of their rights as citizens.

The Supreme Court has seen to the worst aspects of Biden’s vaccine mandates overreach but there can be no doubt that the American governing class believed anyone not entirely swallowing the panicky, often wrong, and ever-changing pronouncements of Dr. Anthony Fauci was somehow less of an American.

At the same time the US government was becoming more authoritarian, it was becoming less competent. There has been a huge upsurge in violent crime throughout the nation, while teachers’ unions have shamefully emerged as the villain of the pandemic, collectively looking for any excuse to manage hard-pressed parents’ homeschooling rather than actually doing their jobs.

Everyone who has been around children for about five minutes recently knows that no amount of the grade inflation to come can obscure the painful reality that we adults have morally failed the next generation, and that both socially and in terms of actual learning they are years behind. We will be paying for this for decades.

Indeed, what people will remember above all else from this historic global crisis is not the COVID-19 tragedy itself, horrible as it has been. Rather, above everything else, they will recount the utter ineptitude and fecklessness of the governing elite, who made a terrible situation far worse.

The 2022 mid-terms will surely lead to large Republican gains. But if I am right, what is coming is far more than this. There may well be a political watershed to come, another FDR-like sea change — and the US left-leaning elite is not going to like this.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

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