Jacob Swenson-Leygel

Four Fights to Wage in the COVID-19 Era

Four Fights to Wage in the COVID-19 Era
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By Jacob Swenson-Lengyel

It is a difficult time to get one’s bearings. Our families and communities are facing pressing, immediate needs, as our organizations scramble to re-orient themselves. Many of us — myself included — have thrown ourselves into action, sensing the urgency of the moment. 

Still, there is a continued need to step back and assess how the COVID-19 crisis is shifting the social, economic and political landscape. As we chart a course forward, I think it may be helpful to distinguish between four interrelated fights we must wage: the fight to oust the Trumpist right, the fight over the exercise of state power, the fight to build a bigger base, and the fight to shift the narrative.

In each of these arenas, the challenges and opportunities are different. Trying to get a handle on both the overall landscape and our relative strength on each front can help us determine how to navigate the terrain ahead.

THE FIGHT TO OUST THE TRUMPIST RIGHT

Despite the fact that COVID-19 has rapidly transformed life around the world, defeating Donald Trump and the right, and building the power of progressives and the left, remains the overriding political task. 

Each day, the cost of Trump’s mishandling of the crisis becomes increasingly clear, as the number of infections and the death count mounts. Nevertheless, it is by no means a given that Trump’s gross negligence will weaken his political standing. Indeed, he may well be able to expand his support as he manipulates the public narrative around the virus, and people look for stability and a return to everyday life. And even before the crisis, mainstream pundits were opining about the possibility that Trump may refuse to leave the White House. While it remains an outside possibility, the risk that Trump may use the COVID-19 crisis to manipulate the election remains real.

What has not been changed by this crisis is the fact that progressives remain only one part of a heterogenous anti-Trump front. Our proposals for radical change are getting much broader consideration, but that welcome shift has not yet translated into substantially more political power. How we fight to maintain a broad anti-Trump front while steadily building our clout within it will matter a great deal. 

During the primaries, the fight between the “moderate” and “progressive” wings of the Democratic Party was necessarily sharp. Tensions remain, and the primary stage is not yet completely over. But Biden’s substantial lead, combined with the urgency of the pandemic crisis, have shifted the terrain. Although it made sense to debate the balance between unity and struggle up until now, the current landscape requires that the main stress be on uniting against Trump. We must position ourselves at the forefront of the fight to oust the current administration, while continuing to argue that this is only one step on the longer road to major structural change. Doing so puts us on the best path to expand our base and ensure the most favorable terrain for post-2020 politics.

THE FIGHT OVER THE EXERCISE OF STATE POWER

The fight to defeat Trump must be rooted in an effective response to the near-term situation we find ourselves in now. At the federal level, Republicans retain a firm grip on the administrative state and their control of both the White House and the Senate gives them the upper hand in fights around federal legislation. Things at the state and municipal level are more hopeful, with key cities and states able to take progressive action, although 21 states remain under Republican control.

This situation should force us to think of sequencing our fight in two phases. We must ask ourselves what concessions we can win from federal and local governments now, in the lead up to the 2020 election, and what we might position ourselves to achieve if we are part of a coalition that captures a good measure of power in the election. 

I think we should pay careful attention to what scientists are saying about the trajectory of the coronavirus itself. While there are many unknowns here and the overall course of the pandemic remains unclear, experts are predicting that hospitalizations won’t peak until May, though some believe the peak could come as late as August. If these predictions are borne out, we are likely to see continued medical and economic relief measures at both the federal and local level for some time to come.

Given the balance of power at the federal level, I think we should maintain a sober assessment of what we can achieve. We must continue to build support for bold demands, and should put energy behind efforts like The People’s Bailout and the 5 principles for just COVID relief, but we must also remain realistic about our power to impact federal legislation. 

While our progressive allies in Congress, especially Rep. Pramila Jayapal and others key leaders in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, were able to win a number of key provisions in the $2 trillion, Phase III stimulus package — particularly around health care subsidies and some conditions on and oversight of the corporate bailout slush fund — they are in an uphill battle against both corporate Democrats and Republicans. 

The next phase of bailout legislation is already being discussed and may include a mix of short-term aid, bundled with investments in infrastructure. But we may well see a package similar to the last one that gives massive handouts to private corporations in the name of “investing in infrastructure,” as Republicans battle against things as straightforward as sick leave and unemployment benefits. Add to this the fact that the right is already painting progressives as opportunistic in pushing for things like a Green New Deal and we find ourselves in a dangerous situation where it may be difficult to push too hard for our favored structural reforms, as Republicans hold urgent relief measures hostage to their own long-term agenda.

Victory here may mean winning immediate relief for everyday people and stopping the right from using the crisis to advance their favored structural reforms (i.e. transferring more power to corporations and the wealthy; doubling down on nationalist, racist, and patriarchal policies). 

Ultimately, the primary impact of campaigns around federal relief is likely to be outside of Washington, where we can build a broad public mandate for our favored policy proposal to restructure the economy as the pandemic (hopefully) recedes and following the 2020 election. Of course, what we can reasonably expect to fight for and win may well change if the extent of the physical and economic damage pushes the Republicans to make more significant concessions. But given the balance of power inside the federal government, those shifts will be propelled by what happens outside the halls of Congress as much as what happens within them.

At the state and municipal level, however, there are much more significant opportunities to fight for and win significant structural shifts in a progressive direction. To the extent that we can focus our energy and effort on these bright spots, we can use them as a springboard to expand upon in coming years.

THE FIGHT TO BUILD A BIGGER BASE

As the pandemic ravages our communities, throwing people out of jobs, deepening their financial precarity, and inflicting a growing death toll, it is paramount that we remain firmly rooted in the existing needs, fears, and desires of the mutli-racial working class. In recent weeks, the focus has been largely on the economic impact of government orders to shutter businesses around the country as social life comes to a screeching halt. But for the next month or more, we can expect that the health implications of the pandemic will touch more and more people across the country. 

If we can keep a clear eye on how these dual crises are impacting our communities, we can rapidly win broad public trust and grow our base. But doing so will require that we closely monitor where are communities are at physically, economically, and psychologically. We’re already seeing this happen, as community organizations jump into action to campaign for greatly expanding the provision of free healthcare services, moratoriums on rent and mortgages, a halt to student loan payments, protections for prisoners and the undocumented, and more. We must continue to keep our ear to the ground and embed ourselves deeply in the emerging demands of our communities, in order to avoid becoming out of step with where everyday people are at as we build support for our more transformative, long-term demands. 

One place where the threat of becoming out-of-sync has become clear to me is around our demands for jobs, as almost 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks. On the one hand, we have a natural instinct to make a connection between high unemployment numbers and our proposal to jumpstart an environmentally sustainable and equitable economy by creating millions of good green jobs. The pressure on this front is only likely to increase given the shocking unemployment numbers and the discussion of a new infrastructure bill.

On the other hand, we must recognize that many people currently being forced to work on the frontlines of the crisis, from healthcare workers to grocery baggers, are terrified about contracting the virus. Indeed, in the last week, we’ve seen workers at Instacart, Amazon, Whole Foods, and elsewhere mount labor actions to demand increased safety protection and pay. Trump, the Republicans, and corporate leaders are repeatedly making known their desire to put people back to work well before the danger of the virus passes, essentially sacrificing human lives for the sake of corporate profits. While the struggle over putting people back to work is starting now, we may do better to focus on people’s health in the near term, by fighting for measures that will enable people to survive without work (or work safely while performing essential tasks), until the health dangers posed by the pandemic begins to subside. 

By fighting for and winning such demands that meet people’s urgent needs, we can gain their trust and support for our long-term vision as well, including our vision of how to restructure society as we emerge from this pandemic. 

THE FIGHT TO SHIFT THE NARRATIVE

Perhaps the biggest opportunity that lies before us right now is on the ideological level, where the pandemic is revealing the extent of our global interdependence, the lunacy of using markets to distribute essential goods, and the sheer cruelty of a system that puts profit above human need. 

Again, victory on this front is not assured. While we see the crisis as vindicating our worldview, the right is rapidly mobilizing its enormous narrative infrastructure to advance nationlist and racist explanations for the crisis, continuing to mobilize people’s very real fear as a tool to divide working people against one another and avoid blame for their criminal negligence and inaction. The right is also continuing to advance the narrative that corporations and individual actors are the heroes who can end this crisis, and of course billionaires and corporations are more than happy to play their part. (The first COVID19 related television ad I saw was a brilliant spot from Ford trumpeting that “for over a hundred years we’ve been building for this country” and proclaiming that they’re here to “lend a hand.”) Couple this with the rightwing’s ability to directly hamper effective government response, instead putting corporations at the steering wheel, and you have a situation in which these narratives may well speak to people’s lived experience.

These challenges notwithstanding, the fact that millions have lost their jobs and millions more will be facing the death and sickness of loved ones is likely to push all of us to ask fundamental questions about the meaning of life and the structure of our society. The strength of our vision has always been the values that it is grounded in: building an economic system that enables every human being to have what they need to flourish; ensuring people have the freedom that comes from direct ownership and control over the decisions that impact their lives; making sure each and every person is valued equally and can live with dignity and respect; and building a political community that speaks to the fact that we are fundamentally social beings.

To that end, at the level of narrative and worldview, I think we would do well to step back as we are able from policy prescriptions that are tightly associated with partisan frames to engage at a deeper and more fundamental level. Yes, this crisis shows we need Medicare for All. But that in turn is part of a broader vision, in which we all share responsibility to ensure that everyone receives the care they need. That idea encapsulates long standing, plainspoken precepts of the left, such as: An injury to one is an injury to all. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

From this starting point, we can highlight how the crisis reveals that the best way to make that happen is through the direct provision of health care that is free at the point of service and delivered by government-funded providers. All this sets us up to reframe our demands in new ways, to an expanded constituency, even in the very near term: Why not open up Medicare right now to all who want it? Or quadruple the income limit for Medicaid eligibility? And in the longer-term: Why should we bail out insurance corporations who have profited for years on our sickness, when we can build a system that prioritizes health instead of profit?

Yes, there is urgency in this moment, but there may also be time and space to make meaning with each other in the midst of an event that is likely to cause deep trauma and desperate need. While fear around person-to-person interaction may well increase in coming weeks, as we begin to emerge I suspect many will feel a deep longing for human interaction and community. How do we step into these openings? Already, many organizations are finding creative ways to engage with their members and the broader public, but I expect there will be much more to do on this front. And I believe that such work will serve as an essential component of base-building and cohering a multi-racial, working class bloc that is united around an agenda for truly transformative change.

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