This week saw fresh protests against the coronavirus shutdown. In cities across the country, thousands of people staged actions, demanding elected officials put an end to stay-at-home orders and restart the economy.
With their Trump 2020 signs, wacko conspiracy theories and anti-science tirades, and confrontations with counter-protesting front-line health care workers, it is easy to dismiss these protesters. It feels good to write them off as nothing more than Trump-drunk right-wingers who care nothing for the people who’ve died or the workers putting their lives on the line every day to keep people alive.
Many — perhaps even most — of these protesters are exactly what they appear to be.
Nonetheless, progressives should take the sentiments expressed at these demonstrations seriously. They are just the most visible expression of a much broader sense of rage and helplessness building among Americans as the shutdown drags on and individuals and families teeter on the brink of financial collapse.
Elected officials warn that businesses in large parts of the country will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future. The school year is effectively over in many states. Fresh layoffs are announced daily as demand evaporates. Twenty-six million people have filed for unemployment, yet relatively few people are getting checks.
In Florida, for example, only 14 percent of people who filed an unemployment claim have received a check, up from about 6 percent last week. Federal unemployment checks are just starting to be sent out this week, and contingent workers are being told that because of software issues and understaffing they won’t get paid until sometime in May. On top of this, millions of undocumented Americans aren’t even eligible for state or federal unemployment benefits, despite paying federal taxes.
Sure, many individuals and families got their onetime stimulus checks — at least, the ones whose bank didn’t steal the money first. But in a country where most households have almost no savings, these funds were gone in an instant. Nearly two months into the crisis, most states haven’t gotten much further than talking about mortgage and rent relief. Meanwhile, landlords, with the help of the police, are evicting people, and banks are demanding their pound of flesh.
People are losing everything — their jobs, their homes, their health care, their savings, their sanity. They are hungry, frightened, and frustrated. But as the latest round of stimulus negotiations in Congress demonstrates, bailout priorities reflect the needs of the banks and big corporations standing at the front of the line with their hands out.
This reality is only fitfully acknowledged. In the endless streams of coronavirus coverage, debate is polarized between right-wing pundits and politicians who declare that grandpa’s gotta go sometime, let’s get back to work, and the liberal media which says that if you care about saving lives, relax, stay inside, sew a cloth face mask, watch that tiger show.
People do care about safety, but it’s hard to just kick back at home when the grocery money is gone, and the landlord is breathing down your neck. It’s difficult to relax when you don’t get to stay at home because you’re needed at the hospital, the supermarket, the warehouse.
Simply put, leftists need to do a better job articulating the pain and uncertainty ordinary people are experiencing during this pandemic or right-wing populists will do it for them. They will frame the crisis as just the latest example of why the government and experts are never to be trusted; why we need to close our borders, keep out immigrants, and start a war with China; why everyone needs to fend for themselves rather than advocating for a robust social safety net.
And desperate people will listen to them — unless progressives offer an alternative framing. The left position must be firm and straightforward: if elected officials want people to stay home, they need to make it possible for them to do so.
In the immediate term, democratic socialists should demand that, until the shutdown is over, all rent, mortgage, and utility payments be cancelled, not postponed, for people who have lost their jobs or can’t work. Anyone who needs it should be given health care coverage under Medicaid or Medicare. Unemployment payments should be fast-tracked, and federal money should be used to hire staff and update state software systems so claims can be processed quickly and efficiently. Every home in America should be connected to broadband internet so students can connect with their teachers. No more bailout money should be given to banks and big corporations; instead, states should be given the funds necessary to make sure every household is food secure.
These are strange and dangerous times. Right-wing populists will make hay from this crisis unless the Left offers a message of solidarity and hope.