July 19, 2020
by Steve Stofka
World War 1 and the flu epidemic that followed was the death knell for the 19th century. Previous epidemics ended the Middle Ages in the 14th century and the Renaissance in the 17th century. Pandemics are permanent detours onto an alternative route through time. Will historians regard the Covid pandemic as the close of the 20th century? Depends on what happens in the next hundred years. History travels slow as a tortoise. The present is as fast as Achilles and eventually overtakes the past.
Pandemics cleanse the politics of the age. Both political parties have fractured in the past two decades. Will this pandemic close the coffin on one or both parties? In name, no. Both parties have a duopoly on voting in each state so sub-groups within each party try to take over the party apparatus. The 2016 election was a takeover of the Republican Party by conservative media, legal and political interests that have been fighting for control of the party since the 1980s.
President Trump is the poster boy of that effort. Conservative groups needed someone to sign off on judicial appointments and other legislation. They preferred someone with little experience, who was impressionable and a bit dim for the rigors of the office. They got more buffoon than they bargained for. If he becomes a one-term President, the people, organizations and money that put him in power will fight their long game – to gut or eliminate most of the federal bureaucracy. The few Federal government institutions left will be the military, a slim State department, domestic policing agencies like the DEA and the Border Patrol, the Treasury, IRS and the courts. In a strict conservative view, defense, enforcement, monetary authority and justice are the only legitimate functions of a federal government.
Each pandemic is a challenge to competing visions of the future. Conservative groups have patience, resolve, and money. If they have their way, the 20th century will have been a political experiment in American socialism that began when progressives gained political power at the start of the last century. The 21st century will return the country to its founding principles.
Liberals envision a more expansive role for a central government. Should there be a limit to the role of government in our daily lives and where should it be set? Without a limiting principle, liberal groups struggle to develop a concise and cohesive philosophy. Perhaps that is the strength of a liberal viewpoint.
Americans have been fighting each other for far longer than they have fought with the rest of the world. In a country with diverse cultural backgrounds, social and political tension is inevitable. The 1918 epidemic helped reshape the country but did not end this grand experiment in republican democracy. Let’s hope that the 2020 pandemic doesn’t change the chemistry of this country so drastically that the experiment ends.