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US finally gets a reality check thanks to COVID-19

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Overnight, policy ideas that once seemed unthinkable have now become not only plausible, but likely. Local, state and federal politicians are debating sending sizeable cheques to every American, instituting moratoriums on rent and evictions and providing free health care and medical leave to everyone affected by the pandemic.

As the crisis breaks down political barriers that once seemed unmovable, it has also begun to erode the elite consensus on small government. A conservative movement built on Ronald Reagan’s quip that “the nine scariest words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help'” will have difficulty surviving an event for which action from the government on all levels is vital to the country’s survival.

More than just an anti-government philosophy is on the chopping block. The long war on expertise has had a powerful effect on American society. The rejection of climate science has prevented the US from enacting green policies; the rejection of vaccine science has led to the return of measles. A longstanding war against universities and newspapers as worthless repositories of liberal bias has eroded public faith in research and reporting. And a blase dismissal of the value of experience has left the most powerful country in the world in the hands of an ageing reality television star with no knowledge of (or interest in) governance.

Yet as the pandemic escalates, many Americans have shown a renewed interest in getting information from experts. Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Deborah Brix have quickly become voices of authority on the national level, as have experienced, reliable politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom.

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That need for reliable information has challenged another underpinning of modern politics: conservative media. Supported by both an engaged base and powerful politicians, conservative outlets like Fox News have grown increasingly disconnected from reality, indulging in conspiracy theories and state propaganda with no real consequences for their bottom line.

In the first few months of the pandemic, they repeated the party line once again. As US President Donald Trump pooh-poohed the virus, the hosts on Fox News did the same, dismissing it as a Democratic hoax or a media conspiracy.

Reality caught up with the President and the network at the same time. As the sharemarket plummeted last week, Trump suddenly struck a different note, appearing sombre and serious at his press briefing. As a result, Fox News also drastically changed course. The next morning, the anchors of the network’s morning show Fox and Friends were suddenly spread out across the studio, maintaining physical distance while reporting soberly on the growing number of infections.

No crisis has so seriously challenged the core features of dysfunctional politics in the US as this pandemic has. Which doesn’t mean that politics will change overnight. On Friday, Trump reverted to form during his press conference. When a reporter asked what he would say to millions of worried Americans, the President snapped, “I think that’s a very nasty question.” And members of Congress are debating phasing in relief cheques, which means people with lower income, and thus no federal tax liability, would receive much smaller cheques.

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Add to that the latest breaking scandal: evidence that at least two senators sold off massive amounts of stock after learning at a private briefing in January that the pandemic was likely to be much worse than reported, then continued to assure the American people that there was nothing to worry about. If that doesn’t start a revolution against corruption in government, nothing will.

The effects of the pandemic are just beginning to appear in the US, and the ripple effects will be felt for years. Nothing can offset the loss of life or the pain of extended isolation. But we will one day begin the process of rebuilding, and when we do, we should grapple seriously with the profound insights this moment has provided.

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at the Obama Presidency Oral History Project, Columbia University.

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