Part Two: The Areas of Regression
[This is the second blog of a three-part series focused on what is happening in our democratic republic in terms of repression and regression and what should be done in response to these conditions. In the first, we examined the areas of repression. In this blog, we examine the areas of regression. In the third, we will present and discuss plans for protecting and preserving our democracy.]
For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
In his famous speech delivered to Congress less than one month after the United States of America had officially entered World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt identified four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
In April 2020, with the United States of America immersed in a war of a different type on the coronavirus pandemic, all four of those freedoms are being threatened. In part that is due to the catastrophic health and economic consequences of the pandemic itself. It is also attributable, however, to the fact that we are living in an era of repression and regression.
As we noted in our first blog of this series, “The repression has been going on for some time but intensified with the presidential political campaign of 2016 and has intensified even more-so under the Trump administration.” There are many areas of repression. The ones we discussed in our earlier blog were: the coronavirus response, the three branches of government, federal government agencies, the Republican Party, the free press and media, voting, and civic life.
The repressive forces, in combination with regression that has occurred in the United States for so many Americans and in so many areas for some time, means that an economic recovery by itself will be insufficient to preserve our democracy.
In his Four Freedoms speech, Roosevelt declared that one of the foundations of a healthy democracy was “The ending of special privilege for the few.” After the end of World War II and until the late 70’s, which brought a combination of high inflation and unemployment, leading to the economic recession of the early 80’s, the United States was making steady progress on that foundation and all of the others named by Roosevelt.
Then things began to regress in a number of areas. This regression accelerated with the economic crisis of 1987, and the Great Recession of 2007- 2009 increased its speed in the second decade of this century.
This brought us to the point, as we noted in an earlier blog, that in 2020
…the United States of America has become a land of inequality and a sanctuary for the rich and powerful. The top 1% of earners have more wealth than the bottom 80% and the top 20% have more wealth than all of those in the middle class.
The Coronavirus Effect
All indicators are that the national stay-at-home guidelines, and shut-downs of all but essential businesses in most states in response to the coronavirus pandemic, will make this economic regression far greater. It has and will have a devastating and debilitating effect on most American businesses and workers.
On April 14, the New York Times published an excellent article and graphics, visually highlighting its effect on how we Americans spent our money in March of 2020 compared to March of 2019. There were a few winners with increases in spending such as groceries, home improvement, and e-commerce. But there were numerous losers, with huge decreases in spending, such as the travel industry, restaurant sales, media and entertainment, brick and mortar retail shopping, transportation and, paradoxically, even health care.
The unemployment numbers have been staggering. On April 16, the Labor Department reported more than 5.2 million claims, bringing the four-week total to more than 22 million. This number of job losses comes close to matching the total of 23 million jobs that were created in the U.S. in the decade from February 2010 to February 2020.
The $1,200 congressional “stimulus bill” payment to each laid-off worker, which was supposed to have been available almost immediately, would have helped many of these individuals. Checks have gone out to approximately 80 million Americans. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, millions of those individuals who filed through organizations such as H&R Block and TurboTax have had their distributions delayed.
Many small businesses have also felt the pain of the government’s inability to act promptly on their behalf. On April 16, the Small Business Administration (SBA) announced that it had processed more than 1.6 million loan applications and exhausted the $350 million for the Paycheck Protection Program that was in the stimulus package for small businesses.
At this time, there is no definitive number available on loan applications that the SBA has been unable to process. Some estimate that that there could be millions of applications outstanding.
These deficits and delays are compounded by the tremendous loss in tax revenue suffered by states and local governments as a result of the collapse. Those governments bear the burden for providing much of the financing for the delivery of services such as public health, education and policing.
There was no money in the $2 trillion congressional stimulus bill for them. The National Governor’s Association has asked for at least $500 billion from the federal government to help the states deal with the shortfall and continue to provide these essential services.
Put all this together and it is a quagmire that demands national leadership, coordination and planning. Instead, what the nation received from Donald Trump’s White House on April 16 were Opening Up America Again Guidelines.
These 18 pages of Guidelines put virtually all the responsibilities for curbing, controlling, and overcoming the coronavirus — and opening up America — in the hands of the states. They set out “gating criteria” that a state must satisfy, including a 14-day period of “downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses” and a “downward trajectory of documented cases.”
After those criteria are met, a state can proceed to a three-phase opening process, including the following key elements:
- Phase One: Businesses can reopen including restaurants, movie theaters and gyms as long as social distancing is maintained.
- Phase Two: Schools and youth activities and bars can reopen and non-essential travel can occur.
- Phase Three: Vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions.
These Guidelines are a framework for each state but not a national plan. They make no provision for a systematic and rigorous program of COVID-19 testing nationally, or for ensuring a rapid response system is put in place if there were an escalated reoccurrence of the coronavirus pandemic. (See Part Three of this blog when it is published for our thoughts on a national health care stabilization plan.)
In the April 17 COVID-19 briefing, after receiving considerable negative feedback on the absence of federal government testing and contact tracking assistance in the Guidelines, the medical experts on the coronavirus task force explained and tried to justify their approach. Vice President Mike Pence emphasized the government had enough tests for the Phase I Reopening.
It should be said, in fairness, that the federal Guidelines do establish a sound general framework for “Opening Up America Again.” But they do not provide a blueprint or a plan. As a result, what America and Americans will get on the healthcare side is a 50-state patchwork quilt, when what is needed is a United States unity blanket.
As importantly, the Guidelines assume implicitly that all that will be required for America to open up again is to satisfy the health care criteria. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the foregoing discussion attests, there are enormous economic obstacles that will stand in the way of this re-opening.
There are major psychological obstacles as well which will significantly retard a prompt re-opening. A Gallup poll conducted in late March, and repeated in early April, asked Americans when they would return to normal activities once the government lifts restrictions and businesses and schools start to re-open.
A mere 20% said they would do so immediately. 71% said they would wait and see what happens with the spread of the virus. And 10% said they would wait indefinitely.
This is awful news for cash-strapped local businesses and larger retail businesses that were precariously situated before the pandemic. It means that when America is opening up they will be shutting down.
This will create cataclysmic conditions across the nation. That is why the emerging view from acknowledged experts is that the economic recovery will be very slow and need governmental intervention.
One of those with that opinion is economist Robert Samuelson. He writes that we should not expect consumers or businesses to revive the economy. He asks, “Whose spending will revive the economy? The answer: the government’s.”
Samuelson qualifies that answer by observing,
“A good deal of the so-called stimulus doesn’t really stimulate. Instead, it stabilizes — or aims to stabilize — financial markets. What we don’t seem to know is how much ‘stimulus’ is of this type, as opposed to genuine stimulus that expands the economy.”
Given the current context, we ask the question: Expand the economy for whom and to deal with what? As we have noted, this is an era of regression. That regression is not only economic. It is also social and political.
We addressed the multifaceted dimensions of that regression and how they were exacerbated by the Great Recession in our book, Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage, published in 2010. Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker addressed the roots of the economic repression in his prescient book, The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream, published in 2006 before the Recession.
Sadly, there has not been much improvement — and, in several instances, things have gotten worse — in the areas of repression that Hacker and we identified back then, before the coronavirus pandemic struck. In this blog, we provide a top-line review and commentary on where things stand today in the following areas of repression: American workers; women; minorities; big business; small business; urban areas; rural areas; civic learning and engagement; and political partisanship.
In his state of the union address on February 4, President Donald Trump declared “Jobs are booming. Incomes are soaring. Poverty is plummeting…I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best that it has ever been.”
We examined that assertion, focusing on the conditions of those in the middle class, blue collar or low wage workers, gig workers, and the poor and concluded:
This definitely cannot be viewed as a boom period for the “typical’ American worker nor can it be labeled a complete bust period. What this period is, for 60% or more of America’s working class — especially those without a high school or college degree — are hard times.
That was our assessment in a blog written before the coronavirus social distance guidelines were announced nationally on March 16. Since then, those hard times have become much, much harder for those workers and for many of them, without substantial government intervention, it will be a bust.
This is due to a number of factors, including enormous inequalities in income distribution in the United States that have grown over time; the average income of low wage workers; deficiencies in the American safety net; and a serious decline in the physical and mental health of Americans without college degrees.
David Leonhardt and Yarnya Serkez illuminate a number of these factors in their April 10 New York Times article. Their opening chart shows that since 1980, GDP has risen by 79% and that over the 40 year time period, income for the bottom half of earners has risen by only 20%, after-tax income of earners near the middle by 50%; and the income of the “very wealthy” has gone up by 420%.
Leonhardt and Serkez point out that if we had the same levels of income inequality today that we had in 1980, every American household in the bottom 90 percent of income would be earning $12,000 more annually. That would be a 50% increase in earnings for the country’s 53 million low wage workers who, according to Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman of the Brookings Institution, earn only $24,000 per year if they work full time with median earnings of $10.22/hour.
Early on during the spread of the pandemic in the U.S, Ross and Bateman opined that these low wage workers were “at greater risk than ever” due to the COVID-19 pandemic because of their work in interpersonal contact jobs, imminent furloughs and layoffs, the lack of health insurance and paid leave, and the minimal safety net for them.
The Trump administration had plans to make it more difficult for those in poverty and at the lowest levels of earning. In this month of April, it intended to require an additional 700,000 citizens to register for work and to lose their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits as well. That is on hold for the moment.
As is, a proposed rule change could have removed disability benefits from thousands of citizens. This would have been done through increased reviews and using a new category called “Medical Improvement Likely” to eliminate benefits for those individuals classified in the category.
Regression for the American worker can be an equal opportunity offender. Looking back in time, many white males without a college or even a high school degree could be and were primary bread winners for their families. Today, some of those white males don’t even have a slice of bread for themselves, being in low-end jobs with no future or having no job.
This can lead to what is labeled “deaths of despair,” due to alcoholism, suicide, and drug abuse within a context of social isolation. The plight of those in these tenuous circumstances is described in detail in two recent books: Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, written by Princeton professors Ann Case and Angus Deaton (Nobel Prize winner), and Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, written by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn.
To conclude, where does the American worker stand today economically? Here’s the not so pretty picture:
- America’s income inequality is soaring in the 21st century and the only time it narrowed substantially in the 20th century was from the 1940’s through the 1970’s
- According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, the U.S. has the lowest minimum wage as a percent of the median wage of any of the three dozen countries surveyed
Those are key points made by Steven Greenhouse in his August 2019 New York Times op-ed essay, adapted from his book, Beaten Down, Worked Up. Add to them, based upon the coronavirus pandemic:
- A Gallup poll between March 27 to March 31, according to Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution, showed that around 28% of workers had already been laid off. As many as 40 million of them will not “be officially considered unemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics because they are not actively looking for work.”
- A recent projection from the Columbia School of Social Work, as reported by Jason DeParle of the New York Times, indicates that if unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic persists, the 2020 poverty rate could be the highest on record.
Looking at women in the workforce, it might appear that this has been an area of overall progress rather than regression for the American worker in general. Appearances can be deceiving.
At the beginning of the year, women held more than 50% of American jobs. That might be good news, all things being equal, but they are not.
Business Insider reports that there are still “glaring gaps” between men’s and women’s earnings. In its March 2020 article, it comments that the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that although the gaps have closed somewhat, pay parity between the sexes will not be reached until 2059.
In its report for 2020, payscale.com states, “Since we have started tracking gender pay gap, the difference between the earnings of women and men have shrunk, but only by an incremental amount each year.”
The uncontrolled gender pay gap (which compares median salaries of men vs women) is 81 cents earned by a woman to every $1 earned by a man. The controlled pay gap (comparing median salary of men and women in the same job and qualifications) is 98 cents earned by a woman to every $1 earned by a man. According to payscale, a number of factors contribute to the large size of the uncontrolled pay gap, including women interrupting their careers for families, employer payment discrimination, and women holding more low- paying positions than men.
A Time article from January of this year highlights that the two industries with the biggest overall employment gains for women in 2019 were in low- paying jobs in health care and retail. Given the nature of these and other low-paying jobs, many women will be among those most adversely impacted economically by the coronavirus pandemic.
Blacks have been adversely impacted by the pandemic, not only economically but also in terms of deaths from COVID-19. For example, based upon data available in early April, blacks in Louisiana, who represent about one-third of the state’s population, accounted for 70% of deaths. Blacks also represented about 70% of the deaths in the city of Chicago and in North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York.
Some have attributed this to pre-existing conditions and health disparities, and that does contribute. But Rashawn Ray of the Brookings Institution presents a convincing argument that “health outcomes are as much about place as they are about race” and there are “structural conditions that cause racial health disparities.”
These conditions include: Blacks live in densely populated and “subpar” neighborhoods that are underdeveloped; they represent a high percentage of public transit users; are more likely to be part of the essential workforce, holding jobs such as bus driver and food service worker; and they lack access to quality health care assistance.
The coronavirus brings to the surface once again the consequences of racial inequality which have haunted this country since its founding. In April 2019, the progressive Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a study that showed in 2018 black unemployment was at least twice as high as white unemployment nationally.
In February of that same year, the EPI’s Elise Gould issued a blog stating the wage gap between blacks and whites continues to widen. In her blog, Gould notes that “The findings here support the important research by Valerie Wilson and William M. Rodgers III which shows that black-white wage gaps expanded with rising wage inequality from 1979 to 2015.”
In spite of these negative trajectories, both black and Hispanic unemployment rates hit historic lows in 2019. The Hispanic poverty rate also went to a historic low in 2018, according to the Census Bureau, at 17.6%, but Hispanics were still overrepresented proportionally in terms of all of those in poverty. An EPI paper released in 2018 showed that in 2017 Hispanic men working full time made 14.9 percent less in hourly wages than comparable white men, while Hispanic women made 33.1 percent less than comparable white men. (Respectively, these were some-to-slight improvements over 2000.)
In the good old days, which for many Americans was the period of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, big business had a broad focus on delivering positive results for customers, shareholders, employees, and communities. Beginning in the early 80’s with the economic downturn at that time and since, big business has narrowed its focus to primarily shareholders and top executives.
Operations were moved first across the United States, and then to locations around the world to developing nations such as China and India in order to lower manufacturing costs substantially. CEO pay went up and in this 21st century skyrocketed. Over the past several years, stock buybacks have been used to artificially inflate the value of the stock to give big payouts to those CEOs and shareholders.
In August 2019, the Business Roundtable (Roundtable) an organization comprised of America’s largest corporations, redefined its statement of purpose. The statement was revised from placing primacy on stakeholders to promoting “an economy that serves all Americans.” That new focus expanded the Roundtable’s scope of stakeholders from a universe of one to include customers, suppliers, communities, and employees.
The rhetoric was good but we were skeptical about the reality because, as we noted in a blog shortly after the statement was issued, it “was accompanied by no action plan nor mechanism for accountability.” We were inclined to be even more skeptical in the midst of the pandemic.
Our skepticism was heightened by Peter Goodman’s article in the New York Times on April 13 titled “Big Business Pledged Gentler Capitalism. It’s Not Happening in a Pandemic.” In his blog, Goodman complemented major banks such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, as well as Apple and Pepsi for positive actions and pledging to stay the course on behalf of their employees.
He called out corporations such as Marriott and Amazon for their actions since the pandemic was acknowledged. He was particularly tough on Marriott which had “begun furloughing most of its American workers, jeopardizing their access to health care, even as the company paid out more than $160 million in quarterly dividends and pursued a raise for its chief executive, Arne M. Sorenson. That raise for next year, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, would be “a 7.7 percent salary increase…plus a cash bonus of up to 200 percent.”
The Marriott story is an especially difficult one to read because of the company’s strong history with workers. It has been on Fortune’s list of the “100 best companies to work for” for more than two decades, ranking #37 on this year’s list. In 2020, Marriott, with its encompassing furlough program, has become one of the best companies not to be able to work for.
The bottom line is that the message from big business in these times of crisis is a mixed one. Some corporations seem to be concerned only about their bottom lines, while others are demonstrating concern for their line-level employees who are most vulnerable now.
The big business layoffs and furloughs have been massive. So, too, in the aggregate, have those of small business.
There are more than 30 million small businesses in the United States. They constitute 99.9% of the country’s businesses and account for 47.5% of its total employment. Small businesses start-ups less than five years old create nearly all new American jobs annually. Small businesses are central and crucial to a well-functioning American economy
While the Great Recession hurt all businesses, it hit small businesses especially hard and their recovery has been slow. Because of the Recession:
- Small business jobs fell 40%, constituting 60% of the total private sector job loss
- From 2009–2013, business start-ups declined to an average of 550,000 annually, vs. 620,00 in the period from 1998–2007
- In the period from 2008–2012, small business loans on bank balance sheets went down by 20%
Overall, things stabilized for small business between 2012–2017. As the Federal Reserve noted in a 2017 Report, however, “by 2017 credit flows to small businesses had improved, though they remained below their pre-crisis level.”
The relatively strong economy between 2017 until February 2020 buoyed the prospects for all small businesses. Then, along came the coronavirus pandemic and it has wrought havoc within the small business community.
An analysis by Sifan Liu, Joseph Parilla, and Brad Whitehead of the Brookings Institution found that 54% of small businesses with employees were in either immediate or near-term risk of being eliminated due to the pandemic. That amounts to over 4 million businesses and 47.5 million jobs.
In a separate Brookings Report, Liu and Parilla comment that this could have a disproportionate impact on minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBE’s) which had been established, grown, and helped to fuel the recovery after the Great Recession. This is due to the fact that many of those MWBE’s are in the “health care, accommodation and food service industries.”
Congress recognized the jobs and economic importance of small businesses, and that is why they put $350 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) into the stimulus bill. What they didn’t anticipate was that because of lobbyist provisions, hotel and restaurant chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Potbelly could poach the PPP funds and take dollars away from legitimate small businesses.
In this next round of funding, there is an additional $310 billion for PPP. Let’s hope a lesson has been learned and the money will flow only to mom and pop establishments.
The coronavirus pandemic has precipitated a crisis across the nation. Among the places originally hit the hardest by this crisis, as William Frey highlights in his piece for the Brookings Institution, are the “urban cores” of some of our major American cities.
This is nothing new for them. There has been an urban crisis in those locales for over one half a century.
Jane Jacob was the first to delineate the nature of the crisis in her 1961 seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which examined the growth of central business districts at the expense of local neighborhoods and communities. In 1971, after the urban riots of 1965, the Illinois Assembly on the States and the Urban Crisis in its report concluded “…the state response to urban problems has been considerable but massive problems remain.”
We have presented numerous facts on the nature of the crisis conditions in our urban areas in prior blogs. Here is one from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution that tells a tale of more than two cities:
In the period from 2009–2014, in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., there was a growth in 96 areas with increases in gross metropolitan product, jobs and aggregate wages. In stark contrast, there was little inclusion with only 8 areas seeing increases in median wage, employment rate and relative income poverty rate. And the relative income poverty rate between whites and other races grew in 69 areas.
In his inaugural address, Donald Trump cited the very real problem of “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities…” And, after describing the gang, guns and drug problems in those cities, Trump declared this “American carnage stops right here stops right now.”
As we wrote shortly after that, we felt the President misused the term carnage, which is defined as “great and unusual bloody slaughter, as in battle,” to refer to what was an urban crisis. Today, part of that urban crisis is a battle being fought by those brave and valiant workers in the front lines, with the help of mayors, governors, and concerned citizens to defeat an invisible enemy called COVID-19.
They could never have stopped this enemy “right here and now.” But they would have benefitted substantially from stronger and earlier intervention and leadership from the Trump administration, and still need the federal government to step up to the plate and play the role it should in order to win this war with the fewest number of casualties.
Initially it appeared that those living in rural states and areas would be relatively immune to the effects of the coronavirus. It has become apparent that this is not the case.
On April 17, CNN reported that “The bump in coronavirus cases is most pronounced in states without stay-at-home orders. Oklahoma saw a 53% increase in cases over the past week …. cases jumped 60% in Arkansas, 74% in Nebraska. South Dakota saw a whopping 205% spike.”
On April 16, healthline.com ran an article by Christopher Curley with the headline “Rural America Could Be the Region Hardest Hit by the Covid-19 Outbreak.” The reasons cited for that assessment include the demographics:
- 15 percent of the people in rural areas are part of a higher risk population
- Nearly 20 percent are 65 or over
- There are higher rates of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity in these areas
There is also a healthcare delivery system problem; many people live 30 miles or more away from the nearest hospital. Since 2010, more than 80 rural hospitals have closed and nearly 700 out of a total of 1821 are close to closure. Rural zip codes lost 20 percent of their hospital beds between 2006 and 2017.
Although poverty in urban areas gets more media coverage, poverty is higher in rural areas. The 2018 American Community Survey showed that non-metro poverty rate was 16.1% vs. 12.6% for metro areas. That rate was highest in the South at 20.5 % — nearly 6 points higher than in the region’s metro areas. The highest level of poverty by racial/ethnic group was for blacks at 31.6%.
Most new jobs aren’t being created in rural areas. Jobs have been migrating from rural areas due to factors such as mechanization and environmental regulations for several decades. In 2017, the rural job market was still 4.6% smaller than it was in 2008 before the Great Recession.
The lack of jobs and businesses means that rural schools have low local tax revenue to go along with state funding for schools. This leads to issues in the recruitment, retention, and rewarding of quality teachers. It also inhibits diversity in educational programming.
Another problem in rural areas is inadequate broadband internet access. A 2016 study by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that 39% of rural Americans are underserved, lacking access to internet download of 25 megabits per second and upload of 3 megabits per second, vs. 4% of urban residents.
This deficiency is starting to be addressed. This year the FCC created a $20 billion Digital Opportunity Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering $600 million in loans and grants to expand the Internet infrastructure in rural areas.
This is good for the future. But, in the here and now, it meant that as the country was shut down in response to the here and now, there were many adults and students in those areas that could not work nor learn from home.
Civic Learning and Engagement
In this 21st century, the federal government has placed a strong emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) learning and testing. This was an important focus. Unfortunately, it has resulted in a deceased emphasis on civics education in grades K-12.
This was first called to the public’s attention in the 2003 CIRCLE publication, The Civic Mission of Schools. CIRCLE, in conjunction with other partners, published a 2011 follow-up report, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, which was “an urgent call to action to restore the historic civic mission of our schools.”
There has been a bit of a response to that “urgent call,” as several states have begun requiring the teaching of civics in high school again. By September 2017, 17 states had passed legislation requiring high school students to pass a test on 100 basic facts of U.S. history and civics.
That is a start but is woefully insufficient because it only focuses on knowledge acquisition. As the National Council of Social Studies said in a 2018 policy statement, “It (civic education) should target the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to ensure that young people are truly capable of becoming active and engaged citizens in civic life.
While there has been some traction in high school, there has been very little nationally in middle school. This is a serious problem because research shows that middle school is the essential place to begin the process of nurturing the nation’s future citizens.
A few states such as Hawaii, Florida, and Tennessee have had statewide civic learning and engagement initiatives that include middle school for some time. Illinois and Massachusetts recently joined this group. The rest of the country is still un- or underdeveloped in terms of civic education.
This is a critical deficiency because the students in K-12 today will be the citizens of the United States tomorrow and it will be up to them to revive a declining American democracy. As we have noted in other blogs, studies from groups such as Freedom House, the Pew Research Center, and numerous others document the extensive nature of that decline.
The areas of repression and regression cited in Parts One and Two of this series have all contributed to the decline. One of the greatest accelerants is the political partisanship that has become the norm in the United States in this 21st century.
As we wrote earlier, the divide between Democrats and Republicans has become a chasm on policy issues, and has also contributed to highly negative perceptions of those in the opposite party.
Pew Research Center reports issued in 2019 document the size of that chasm. In one Report, Pew observed that “twenty years ago, and even as recently as 2014, the top priorities of Democrats and Republicans were much more aligned than they are today.” That report showed there was no agreement at all currently on the top priority policy issues.
Another Pew report showed that that Democrats and Republicans could agree on one thing — that they can’t agree. 73% of those partisans surveyed said “On important issues facing the country, most Republican voters and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts.”
That chasm and disagreement has played out in spades during the coronavirus pandemic. Polls show that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to approve of the President’s handling of the country’s response to the pandemic. The Gallup poll cited at the outset of this piece shows that the vast majority of the 20% of respondents who said they would return to normal activities immediately once the government lifts restrictions were Republicans.
They were itching to get out and about when the survey was done in late March and early April. Then, on April 17, Donald Trump, the Repressor in Chief, turned the chasm into a caldron and poured his personal vitriol into it.
He did that by tweeting “Liberate Michigan. Liberate Massachusetts. Liberate Virginia,” after protesters had taken to the streets in Lansing, Michigan and others states to demonstrate against their states’ stay-at-home orders. Some in those protests had American flags, some wore MAGA hats, some had Confederate flags, and some carried weapons.
In his coronavirus briefings following the protests, Trump defended and spoke approvingly of the protesters’ behavior in defying his own Open Up America Guidelines. He said, among other things, “People feel that way. “You’re allowed to protest. I watched the protest, and they were all 6 feet apart. It was an orderly group of people.”
This, of course, was not true. The protesters were neither orderly nor 6 feet apart. And, once again, with his incendiary tweets and inaccurate observations, Donald Trump proved that as our war-time president he is a model of irresponsibility, inconsistency and incompetence.
He also proved that as our President he is one of the biggest threats to our American democracy. He won the presidency by capturing those on one side of the political chasm, has served in the office by appealing to them, and is now using the coronavirus pandemic as a tool in his re-election campaign. This is a sad commentary on him and the state of our nation.
That completes our review of the regression areas. It is an exhausting list but not an exhaustive one. There are many other important ones that could be added to the regression list. To name just a few: millennials, schools and teachers, the print news media, manufacturing, and innovation.
And there is the U.S. Postal Service. It has been said, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But the coronavirus pandemic just might, as it has pushed this already financially-distressed American institution into more even dire financial straits. To date the Trump administration has refused to provide any bailout money for it.
Part Three: Plans for Preserving Our Democracy
The areas of regression discussed herein and the areas of repression discussed in Part One of this series, which were in existence before the coronavirus pandemic altered America’s reality, make what has occurred because of COVID-19 an existential crisis.
We should remember though, as John F. Kennedy and others have advised us, the Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other opportunity. In the last blog of this series we will share our thoughts on the plans that should be developed to resolve the crisis fully by defeating the danger it poses and converting it to an opportunity to make the United States a healthier, safer, more equitable, and more inclusive democracy.
We began this blog with a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a president who led the American people through an economic and war-time crisis. We close it with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, a President who led this country through a different type of crisis. Lincoln said:
I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the facts.
We now have the facts. It is time to do something with them.