About four years ago, on one of the many days I was lamenting the election of Donald Trump, a friend handed me a copy of Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank. My friend remarked that he was less concerned about Trump becoming president than the circumstances that led to a former reality TV show host with authoritarian leanings attaining the highest office in the land.
Frank’s compellingly argued and well-supported thesis is that over the past few decades, the Democratic Party gradually transformed from being the party of working people to one that represents primarily the interests of professionals. The book was published about half a year before the 2016 presidential election, and it served as a warning that a continued failure to address this issue might well result in Trump prevailing over Hillary Clinton, or someone equally unpalatable becoming president in the future. After all, since the Democrats have effectively abandoned working people whose quality of life has been rapidly diminishing since the 1980s, who can blame them for trying something different?
It is with regret that I observe, a full presidential election cycle later, that the response of the liberal-left to the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates that we have learned nothing from the debacle of the 2016 election and intervening years. As exemplified by publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the words of politicians from Gavin Newsom to Joe Biden, lockdowns and forced social distancing have become synonymous with the liberal Democratic approach to handling the pandemic.
At this point, it is beyond evident that these policies are extremely destructive to the poor and working class, especially those in the inner cities. The New York Times recently reported that an additional eight million people in the United States alone have become impoverished as a result of economic disruption due to lockdowns. Obviously, school closures adversely affect children from underprivileged backgrounds much more than those whose families can afford tutors, private schools, and laptops and have the resources to assist with remote learning. Recent studies have shown that, as should come as no surprise, poor children – particularly children of color – are falling further and further behind in school, widening the achievement gap.
People whose livelihoods depend upon their physical presence tend to be members of the working class. If their jobs are deemed essential – for instance grocery store employees or bus drivers — they must report to work regardless of whether or not they are vulnerable to a severe outcome from a coronavirus infection.
On the other hand, if they work in the restaurant industry, clothing stores, or in construction – businesses considered nonessential to society, however essential the paychecks might be to employees — they are deprived of the ability to earn a living. Countless small business owners have been forced to shutter their doors permanently because they could not survive months of lockdowns, while the owner of the Washington Post is raking in billions of dollars from increasing Amazon sales.
Many, if not most, poor and working-class people cannot readily socially distance, as residing in cramped, crowded quarters is a typical feature of economic deprivation. Those who live in such conditions understandably might find it less manageable to simply stay home and not associate with people outside their households for months on end. In short, lockdowns and social distancing are a luxury of educated elites who can work in relative comfort from their living rooms on their laptops, with any hit to their paychecks counterbalanced by the savings from making cocktails at home instead of buying them at bars.
Yet there has been very little acknowledgment of this truth from Democratic politicians, the press, or most members of the liberal-left. When the hardship inflicted upon the underprivileged is acknowledged, it is deemed unfortunate yet inevitable.
But it is not inevitable. Credible alternatives have been posited, including recommendations by three of the world’s most renowned epidemiologists, embodied in the Great Barrington Declaration.
The Declaration’s purpose is to balance the interests of those susceptible to a severe outcome from a coronavirus infection against those who are not at significant risk, recognizing that there is more than a thousand-fold difference in mortality between the old and the young. The Declaration rejects the assumption that lockdowns and forced social distancing are the only means of managing the virus, and suggests that children and healthy adults under 50 should immediately resume normal life, while resources are devoted to protecting those over 60 and other high-risk groups. In a few months, a level of herd immunity would be achieved, allowing the vulnerable to reenter society.
One of the Declaration’s salient points is that the poor and working class bear the burden of lockdowns, and thus we must consider this course of action.
Although the Declaration was authored by prominent epidemiologists from Harvard, Stanford and Oxford, it has been automatically and resoundingly decried as fringe, bad science, and unworthy of deliberation. Unsurprisingly, those who so vociferously condemn the Declaration absent any genuine contemplation are journalists, doctors, pundits, and scientists: members of the professional class.
This bears hallmarks of the spring, when many of the same people who are eschewing the Declaration heaped scorn upon anti-lockdown protestors in the Midwest. Pundits insinuated that the protests were connected to white supremacist movements, that firearms were commonplace at the rallies, and that the protestors were spreading the coronavirus. There was no acknowledgment whatsoever that many of these people were reasonably infuriated that they had suddenly been stripped of their livelihoods and ability to educate their children.
The approach to the pandemic that the Democratic Party and liberal-left has adopted represents the culmination of Frank’s concerns expressed in Listen, Liberal. The working class and poor have been utterly forsaken; the party serves primarily the interests of the ruling class. The Democratic Party cannot expect to win back the working class until it addresses this shortcoming. Because even if Joe Biden wins this election narrowly, this fundamental issue will remain.