It is hard not to be happy about the end of 2020. Many people have said it has been the worst year ever, both personally and for the country. How could the next year be worse?
One might easily have had the same thoughts at the end of 1938, where the Great Depression sunk to new depths and the world saw the first flickers of a global war. We know what happened next. There is a lot of superstitious and magical thinking about 2020. But it’s not the arrangement of the numbers that brought us here.
Nor was this last year’s difficulty simply a symptom of the coronavirus. Other nations, including China, have adjusted their measures for the degree of risk. They realized, as we should have done by June at the latest, that COVID-19 is one of a series of exotic bugs that spring out of Asia, cause a certain amount of death, and then become endemic for a while. This is just a predictable, natural event, with the sort of death toll that the world dealt with more manfully in 1957 and 1968.
The augmented damage of the last year is a sign of a system collapsing; it exposes the lack of imagination and competence among the ruling elite and the managerial class. The brute force measures—lockdowns, masking, and social distancing—have done little to contain the virus, and at much cost. Little has changed in their approach, even as we have learned more about it.
Instead, one’s attitude about the virus became a mark of purity and belief in “science,” that is to say, an endorsement of the managerial class’s claims of expertise and knowledge. Now a novel vaccine is on the way, and it’s being pushed to all and sundry, including those at comparatively little risk. Knowledge of basic math seems inversely proportional to one’s public proclamations of belief in science.
These measures’ economic destruction was inevitable, but the attempts to manage them have been clumsy and tin-eared. Most notably, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped many of the rich get richer, with law firms, large corporations, and other well-heeled players able to secure enormous forgivable loans. The thinking behind this was justifiable perhaps; in haste, we have to accept a certain amount of fraud in exchange for speed. But much smaller checks—a much smaller portion of the first stimulus package—went to ordinary working Americans in the spring.
Now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Ky.) is making heroic efforts to stop $2,000 checks to Americans of modest means. We never see such energy deployed to ban abortion, close the borders, or curtail foreign aid, but all of a sudden the Republicans become deficit hawks devoted to the common good when a government program helps regular Americans who have been harmed primarily by the acts and omissions of government.
This is not a fluke. And this selective concern for deficits and process crosses both parties. The recent response to the coronavirus is just a larger scale repeat of the TARP bailouts from 2008. Those enormous sums were designed to protect banks and their balance sheets from improvident real estate investments, even though providing directly to Americans struggling to pay their mortgages would have propped up the housing market while also helping the banking industry. But fiscal responsibility ends when ordinary Americans benefit.
Over the summer, we saw another sign of collapse: a system unable to maintain law and order. Against his tough-guy instincts, Trump was advised to remain mostly passive in the face of widespread riots. The collapse was aided and abetted in certain cases by figures in left-leaning local and state governments, as well as corporate America, which piled on in their competition to be the wokest.
Minneapolis became a disaster area. Parts of Seattle were occupied for a month or more by violent anarchists and black nationalists in the so-called CHAZ. All the while, crime skyrocketed nationally. Laws were enforced sporadically and inconsistently, particularly in cities, to redress the Marxist concept of “mass incarceration.”
Consider the lunacy of the FBI devoting 15 agents to look into an alleged noose at a NASCAR garage that a smart eighth-grader would have realized was a false alarm. At the same time, the extensive, organized, and very violent Antifa movement remains largely a mystery. Its funding, leadership, and networks are of little interest to federal law enforcement; the FBI director said it was “an ideology, not an organization.” He has instead opened the way to harassing right-wing organizations by declaring against all evidence that “white nationalists” are the biggest threat.
A system that selectively and arbitrarily enforces laws and is indifferent to its citizens’ safety and flourishing is a failure that will not command legitimacy. Whether this is deliberate incompetence or a product of ideologically-driven blindness is mostly irrelevant. The government’s most basic job is not getting done.
The End of Democracy
Finally, and most recently, the 2020 election and the earlier impeachment were the signs of a ruling class horrified at the prospect of change and the consequences of democratic accountability. This is odd because the ruling class and voters almost unanimously claim to agree in principle with democracy and the legitimacy of a popular mandate. Yet democracy—a form of popular government—is deemed horribly threatened by “populism.”
But populism is just a big tent collection of policies, not necessarily wedded to the orthodoxy of either party, that 1) are not generally popular with elites, 2) deviate from free-market orthodoxy, and 3) often evince social conservatism and nationalist sympathies. There is nothing extreme about wanting immigration enforcement and supporting out-of-work Americans, or a strong military and a withdrawal from Afghanistan. So-called populism flows rather logically for those who do not view themselves as either global citizens or as hostile to their own poor countrymen.
The two parties converge against populism despite the alleged fraying of the republic. What used to be called social issues are of little concern to the Mitch McConnells of the world. He and the GOP leadership have made peace with everything from women in combat to Drag Queen Story Hour. Similarly, the Democrats’ focus on race and other social issues crowds out the mostly economic concerns of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. Lately, Republicans are trying to compete with the Democrats on racial giveaways, including Trump’s ill-advised Platinum Plan. There is little deviation in either party from either liberalism or the liberal account of American history as a disgraceful story only undone by the 1960s.
Both parties’ leftward drift on social issues and accommodation of market economics does little to threaten Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Amazon’s growing economic and political power. While the old GOP would love to pretend Trump didn’t happen—so they can soon get back to losing while conjuring up the spirit of Ronald Reagan—Trump is joining forces with Bernie Sanders in support of more generous relief checks to struggling Americans.
While the party apparatuses have converged, their results have not been good. Nor has this convergence been popular with large, alienated pluralities in both parties. The Sanders phenomenon and the Trump phenomenon are two sides of the same coin. They each represent a plurality of Americans who feel unrepresented, powerless, and unhappy with the results and priorities of those in charge.
The year 2020 was simply the culmination of several converging trends. The system has not made a bargain with the average American. Flat wages, neighborhood insecurity, hostility to native-born Americans and their history, and grim prospects even for large numbers of those who “play by the rules” are leading to widespread alienation and dissatisfaction.
Since Trump was a risky attempt to change the system, and in this he mostly did not succeed, there is little reason to believe 2021 or 2022 will be better years. Rather, a crisis of authority and legitimacy is emerging from failures in the most fundamental tasks of a society: the provision for basic needs, physical security, and a fair and accepted means of making decisions and picking leaders.
The shutdowns, riots, and fishy election of 2020 simply showed that those in charge might be miscalculating the permanence and security of their current position.