Today, around the world, in bastions of democracy and places ruled by tyranny, civil liberties are being curtailed in the name of fighting COVID-19. World leaders, big and small, have declared “war” on this virus. The larger and lesser, economies of the world have been shut down, in the name of saving lives to fight the pandemic. In democratic nations curtailing, civil liberties and rights in the name of sacrifice are now the norms. They are saying we must do anything to win this war on the virus.
In the non-democratic countries, the COVID-19 is a “crisis” to be used to disintegrate any opposition to the power structures that rule. In both the demos is told whatever the consequences we must stop this virus. The answer no leader seems to be proving is what is victory and at what actual costs? In the democratic nations, our leaders have yet to tell us when basic tenents of economic and democratic norms will return. In fact, they are curtailing them further by the moment.
A common denominator in the rollback of free-market and democratic norms is the need to respond to a crisis. Even in the cradle of democracy, here in the United States, fundamental rights have been impacted by other “wars” on things like terror. It is easy in times of crisis for elected officials to all race each other to be to the fiercest warriors against the crisis.
Such opportunities for rolling back norms are particularly true when citizens feel their lives are under threat. What is more challenging in any democracy is to be the unique elected official who speaks up to restore such rights after the crisis has abated. After 9/11, no politician wanting reelection could afford a narrative they were favoring the terrorist over Americans. The pattern was set quickly, a “soft on terror elected officials” — even one raising legitimate constitutional concerns — will be voted out of office. Most elected officials want to do the right thing. Yet even for those who take an oath to defend the constitution, electoral calculus matters. Sadly, and far too often, that calculus trumps their oath to democratic constitutional norms.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, or at least from the point where it was taken seriously by our elected officials, none of them has wanted to appear weak in trying to stop it. They instead have raced to be seen as the toughest in checking it. Long ago, in one of my first jobs in politics, a very successful Governor told me, “when bureaucrats start raising the number of worst-case scenarios beware as it is a setup to declare victory when reality comes in far less.” Since the dawn of this crisis, we have seen the CDC estimates grow and the length of “flattening the curve” lengthen. While I am not a physician or an epidemiologist, it seems clear this is a case of such attempts to “declare victory” by coming in at less than expectations.
Yet in the race by politicians to be the most ardent warriors fighting the virus — and the ever-lengthening curve it may require being spouted by well-intentioned but unelected bureaucrats — some things appear to have been missed. The first is the massive impact on the United States economy. Decisions focusing on stopping the virus were made without understanding or assessing how quickly and massively, they would impact basic economics. The tide was set without political space to reset the war plan.
I have spent the past eight days traveling around my home state of Wisconsin. It is a state that matters in terms of Presidential politics. Over this time, I have watched the real economy stop. When talking to people across the state, from a safe social distance, the reoccurring words are “scared” and “uncertainty.” They are uncertain how big of a threat the virus is to them as individuals. But as much as they fear the illness, they are equally or more greatly frightened by the economic consequences which are unfolding and unleashing around them. Moreover, it isn’t just those fearful of losing their jobs or those who have lost their jobs. With each passing day, more and more individuals who provide the jobs — the small business owners — are becoming terrified.
In 2008 we had the financial crisis, but in truth, that was primarily difficulty in the banking sector — a Wall Street problem that trickled down. What is different for people this time, at least across Wisconsin, is this is a problem of Mainstreet — of the real economy. Today, most businesses are either trying to hold on as best they can, even if shutdown, or innovating like the small restaurants that now deliver. I witnessed this creativity and innovation across the state. It was incredible to see. Most heartening were those with work intentionally ordering food from their favorite places to help keep them going so they would exist after the virus was defeated. However, at the same time, it was unclear to nearly everyone how long the measures undertaken by elected officials would last. Moreover, if the uncertainty doesn’t clear soon, many suggested they would probably give up the fight.
While the politicians in Washington are struggling to get economical packages passed and stem the tide, it is clear there is only so much it will do to save Mainstreet. Walmart and Amazon will probably be fine when this ends. The airlines, big hotels, banks, and other big businesses will likely be good, too, at least for a while due to bailouts. But in small-town America, or at least in Wisconsin, the length of time it is sustainable is an existential question. I suspect this is true across the country as well. As a man who cuts hair, whose shop has been shuttered by government, said, “They say I am not essential. I am closed down. When my kids can’t eat, I don’t care what they say, I will be essential, and I will reopen.”
The impending economic crisis, of course, gets to the bigger question. We now have a “war” on the virus. In combat, every sacrifice, the decision to take away rights or liberties, or impose (or take) people’s lives or livelihoods by the government is justified by winning the war. No elected officeholder desiring a future can afford electorally to be seen as not doing all they can to defeat COVID-19. Yet, with an election looming, in a state that matters, the question of restoring these rights is paramount. People and businesses need certainty to survive. While politicians may not see it now, how fast the barber can reopen his shop is going to loom as large, or larger, than how many died of COVID-19 on Election Day. Based on what I have seen and heard, they have a couple of weeks at most to get it right.
Moreover, the 2020 Presidential Election — at least in Wisconsin — will be less about the virus snuffing out the lungs of those who contract it. What will matter far more will be how it is impacting the many who are affected directly by the shutting down of the lungs of the American economy. How fast elected officials move to restore the fundamental rights and norms, will determine if a virus, causing an economic disaster, leads to significant political and civil unrest.
It might sound alarmist, but if our leaders don’t provide answers soon, these are the massive economic, political, and societal consequences. In many ways, whether we realize it or not, COVID-19, the virus may be the least of our problems, compared to the forces unleashed by the policy responses to it. The race to be the most vigilant elected official warriors in fighting the war on the virus may very well change us and our country forever. All the current uncertainty the response to the infection is unleashing has the real potential to be politically and economically terrifying — one that changes us, our country, and our democracy forever.