Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Signaling the End of a 40-year Republican 'Regime'?
It won't end on its own.
Something I have learned is the difference between presidential elections and politics. To be sure, our national discourse treats them as if they were synonymous. But once you pay close attention to the nature of elections—they tend to be more fantasy than reality—you understand more fully that meaningful shifts in the political landscape usually don’t line up with an electorate’s decision-making once every four years.
Our national discourse isn’t the only reason we usually think of presidential elections and politics as the same thing. Many of us, not just celebrants of Marxist electoral theory, possess a deep sense of “progress”—that American history itself, often aligned with the will of God, marches inexorably forward with or without human agency in the direction of greater freedom, justice, equality and prosperity for all Americans.
The pandemic probably does signal the Reagan-Bush regime is winding down. Will it end in 2020? Maybe.
Most of us surely felt this way after the historic election of our first black president. Slavery and apartheid had been America’s great crime against humanity, but here was the same racist nation electing a biracial cosmopolitan leader of the free world. Before 2008, “progress” might have felt abstract. Afterward, it felt so real that many, or most, white Americans came to believe that we’d entered an epoch of “post-racialism.”
That was wrong, obviously. Meaningful shifts in the political landscape usually don’t line up with presidential elections. America was no more “post-racial” after 2008 than it was “post-racial” after 2016 with the election of Donald Trump. Socially accepted sadism hadn’t disappeared. It was present the whole time. The sense of “progress” embedded in our culture, however, prevented many white Americans from seeing it.
Progress doesn’t line up with elections, but it does happen. Whether it’s good is a different question. Our history can be seen as a series of “political regimes” in which one party and its argument for the proper role of government in our daily lives prevails with a majority of voters for about four or five decades. The catalyst for regime change is usually a national crisis that can’t, or won’t, be resolved by the prevailing regime.
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Herbert Hoover and the Republicans represented the political consensus in the run up to the market crash of 1929. The decade-long Great Depression ended it. Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats were preeminent through World War II and most of the Vietnam War. The backlash against that conflict and against civil rights advances—in addition to oil shocks of the 1970s—ended it. Our current consensus of low taxation and low regulation began with Jimmy Carter, but it’s usually attributed to Ronald Reagan, who has been for the last half century the patron saint of US conservatism.
It’s tempting to see the current crisis as the beginning of the end of the Reagan-Bush regime. The new coronavirus has killed more than 26,000 people in this country and will likely lead to thousands more deaths. Its economic impact threatens to push unemployment up to 20 percent (that’s firmly in Great Depression territory). Farmers are plowing under crops and dumping milk while people are going hungry. Experts are warning of the need for “social distancing” practices for at least two more years, which, when you think about it, means we could be living abnormally for such a long time that the very notion of normal will eventually become a distance memory.
Progress doesn’t line up with elections, but it does happen. Whether it’s good is a different question.
There’s another sign of regime change. What was politically impossible is all of a sudden politically expedient. For instance: Criminal justice reformers have for years been advocating for releasing prisoners convicted of minor crimes, such as the sale of marijuana. GOP lawmakers always balked, saying releasing them before they repaid debts to society would give people free license to commit future crimes. Yet, in the thick of a pandemic, states are releasing non-violent felons in droves. Just like that.
A host of progressive policy ideas are quickly worth talking about in Washington. Permanent paid medical leave, employment guarantees, universal basic income, higher minimum wages, universal health care, comprehensive immigration reform, even climate change regulation—the list goes on and on. In the past, the GOP and the business class said we can’t do this. It would hurt the economy! But we may soon be getting to the point where we can say: if we don’t do this, that will hurt the economy!
The pandemic probably does signal the Reagan-Bush regime is winding down. Does that mean it will come to a hard stop in 2020? Don’t bet on it. Transitions between regimes can be so long it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins until years after the fact. My guess is the beginning of the end of the Reagan-Bush regime was evident in the 2007-2008 panic. The end of the end might be the close of Trump’s first term or his second. What’s certain is that progress doesn’t happen on its own.
If you want the regime to end now, you have to force it.