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Playing the Class Card in the Pandemic Politics

Class has been an important part of American political discourse for a very long time. The plight of the poor played a particularly important role in Democratic politics. The party was phenomenally successful in using the class card to become the dominant force in American politics after the Great Depression. The New Deal brought unprecedented four presidential terms to FDR and continued to bring political success to several other prominent Democrats, including JFK, until its final collapse in the middle of the 1970s.

The Reagan revolution dramatically changed the situation. Following this revolution, the Democrats largely abandoned the class card in favor of others. Race, women, and gender have supplanted class in their political lexicon. In the last presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton even reversed the traditional use of the class card and chastised America’s poor for their failure to adapt to modern conditions and to take part in the hi-tech bonanza that blessed America.

In the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Democrats have been largely tone-deaf with regard to the effect of their policies on those at the bottom of the pay scale. The lockdown that many Democratic governors and politicians have been promoting has made a devastating impact on workers and small business owners struggling to make a living.

Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Democratic governor, has been one of the first to introduce a massive lockdown, a total school closure, and the shelter-in-place approach for the entire state of New York as his response to the spread of the virus. This nuclear option may have been necessary in New York City and other large metropolitan centers of the state, but it is irrelevant in much of the state that is largely rural with extremely low rates of infection and practically no cases of death from coronavirus. Moreover, this approach has been very harmful to rural New York, as it has killed most local small businesses and created massive unemployment in small towns and villages.

Unlike those in the upper-income bracket who live in large metropolitan centers, many rural residents cannot work from home. Also, the closure of colleges and universities in the state that Cuomo has ordered has affected mostly lower-paid members of support staff who were furloughed without pay, while full-time tenured professors continue to receive their full checks for doing online teaching (the market value of this form of education is much lower than the education with face-to-face contact). Yet despite these disastrous policies the progressive camp celebrates Governor Cuomo as a hero and has even started grooming him for a presidential run to replace the visibly declining Joe Biden.

In view of this prehistory, recent attempts by the progressives to resort once again to the class card comes as a surprise. The New York Times, for example, has published a series of articles that draw attention to the plight of common people in the COVID-19 epidemic. The titles of these articles reflect this orientation: “‘We Have Lost It All’: The Shock Felt by Millions of Unemployed Americans; “‘White-Collar Quarantine’ Over Virus Spotlights Class Divide”; “Locked Out of the Virtual Classroom”; and others. They all describe the devastating effects of the policies of lockdowns, school closures, and shelter-in-place on the lives of millions of low-income Americans. The article “Locked Out of the Virtual Classroom” laments the fact that many students from low-income families are rapidly falling behind in their education because they cannot afford computers required for remote education or do not have access to the Internet. Since Governor Cuomo projects the school closure in the state of New York to last at least four months and schools are unlikely to reopen at least till the beginning of next school year if not later.

At first glance, the reintroduction of the class card to the progressive political agenda appears odd. On close analysis, however, one can see that the logic of this development is perfectly consistent with the rest of progressive policies. The conclusion that inevitably follows from the articles cited above and many other contributions on the subject of the poor is that the cause of the plight is the unequal distribution of wealth in America. In light of this conclusion, the only possible solution to this problem is an egalitarian redistribution of wealth. One can easily see the connection with the old agenda of the progressives—one that goes back to the 1930s and the New Deal. In other words, the progressives are trying to sell once again to the American people this old and rejected solution.

What can we make of these efforts by the progressives to re-introduce the old New Deal in a new garb? One observation is quite obvious: the progressives have no new ideas and try to sell the slightly spruced old one to the American people. Also, the readiness of the progressives to abandon the class card and then suddenly to reintroduce it again indicates that the fate of the low-income Americans is not about principles; progressives can easily trade this card for other issues, if necessary, to suit their political ambitions.

The fate of the old New Deal shows that redistribution of wealth is not a solution to the problem of poverty. Indeed, during the immediate post-war years when the American economy dramatically expanded, the number of poor in America declined and the size of the middle-class in America grew substantially. However, in hindsight, one can see that this improvement was not due to redistribution of wealth but rather to the unprecedented economic expansion. When the rate of economic growth began to decline, so did the number of middle-class Americans.

The fact that poverty declined in America under conditions of economic expansion suggests that the key to the elimination of poverty is economic growth, not redistribution of wealth. The class card may bring political success to progressives but it cannot solve the problem of poverty. It did not do so in the past and will not do so in the future. The growth of wealth is the path to eliminating poverty. In all fairness, one should say that President Trump and the Republicans also do not have a permanent solution to the problem of growth, but at least they talk about this problem.

In order to achieve sustained economic growth, our economy must be efficient—very efficient. An efficient economy is one that uses its resources efficiently. Human capital is the most important economic resource. It is the capacity of humans to create new levels of organization in their mind that is the source of creative innovation. Moreover, unlike any other resource, human creative capacity does not depreciate; it appreciates when used, which means that it is quite possible that our economy can enjoy accelerated growth, not just growth. In order to achieve such growth, we must use to the fullest extent possible the creative capacity of all Americans. However, such an efficient utilization of our most important resource requires a new practice.

At the present time, the characteristic feature of our practice is the domination of hierarchies. Hierarchical interactions are about command and control, not a creative mode of operation; they can even stifle creativity. They are primarily about conservation and optimization of what has already been created.

The source of creation is non-hierarchical interactions. Such interactions among equals are universally inclusive. By including differences, such interactions create new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization of our mind—both individual and collective—that give rise to new ideas, new products, new approaches, and new solutions.

Crises bring hardships and suffering, but they also create opportunities for trying something new. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining is there because we have the audacity to see and create it. The coronavirus pandemic can also have a silver lining, but it behooves us to create it. It is our responsibility to make this happen. It will be our way to honor those who have and will die in this pandemic so that their lives do not go to waste. It is our responsibility to each other and to future generations.