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Perhaps no other moment in American history has driven home the impact of government in our daily lives like the coronavirus pandemic.
Not only are 150 million Americans getting a direct deposit of government funds, they’re suddenly considering what it would mean to go without federal, state and local services long embedded in American life. Like public schools and city buses, playgrounds and national parks. Maybe even the mail.
Some Democrats believe this new awareness of government in our lives will usher in a broad consensus around the need for big, publicly funded programs like “Medicare for all,” free college and a higher minimum wage.
But there are some signs that the political impact of this virus and the sudden, invasive intervention into our daily lives that followed could tip the other way, into a resurgence of the libertarian strain long present in American politics.
Over the last few days, protests of stay-at-home orders have exploded in State Capitols across the country.
In Michigan, demonstrators in cars jammed the streets around the State Capitol, backing up traffic for more than a mile in several directions to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order, one of the most restrictive in the country. Some left their cars to crash the front lawn of the Capitol, wearing MAGA hats and waving the “Don’t Tread on Me” flags popular at the Tea Party protests of the Obama era.
In Frankfort, Ky., dozens of people shouted through a Capitol building window at Gov. Andy Beshear, and in Raleigh, N.C., the police arrested one protester after about 100 people gathered to oppose Gov. Roy Cooper’s restrictions.
“We are in violation of Comrade Cooper’s order,” Leonard Harrison, dressed in an American flag shirt, told The News & Observer. “If I get locked up today, I’m OK with that. As North Carolinians, we need to get back to work.”
Not all the protests were aimed at Democratic governors: In Ohio, around 100 protesters gathered outside the Statehouse during an appearance by Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican. And in St. George, Utah, demonstrators showed up with signs reading “Resist like it’s 1776” and “America will never be a socialist country,” after the Republican governor, Gary Herbert, instructed residents to stay at home.
More demonstrations are planned in Virginia, Texas and Washington. Lawsuits have also been filed in California, New Mexico and Michigan against some of the stay-at-home orders, with plaintiffs arguing that the orders violate their constitutional right to assemble.
While operating largely uncoordinated, some of the demonstrators were spurred on by right-wing pundits in President Trump’s orbit — a bit of a twist, given that the president has recommended social distancing guidelines stay in place until at least the end of the month.
“The American spirit is too strong and Americans are not going to take it. And what happened in Lansing today, God bless them, it’s going to happen all over the country,” Jeanine Pirro told Sean Hannity Wednesday night on Fox News, referring to the Michigan capital.
While Mr. Trump wants the country to reopen as quickly as possible, public health officials and many governors have said that could lead to more infections and once again overwhelm health systems. In an audio recording of a call provided to The New York Times today, Mr. Trump told the country’s governors that they can “call your own shots” on when to reopen their states.
Of all the political questions surrounding the coronavirus, the president, his campaign and his supporters are focused on the most central one: How does Mr. Trump’s handling of the situation impact his chances at re-election?
Clearly, there are politics at play with these protests. Ms. Whitmer is widely assumed to be under consideration by Joe Biden’s team for the vice-presidential slot and has been publicly feuding with the president over the last few weeks. Taking her down a peg could help Republicans build a case against her.
But pandemics are unpredictable. And big events have a way of scrambling ideological lines, as we’ve already seen with the unanimous vote in the Senate for the $2 trillion government aid bill — the biggest spending package in American history.
This week’s protests show that sense of congressional unity, if it ever existed, is unlikely to last. Multiple backlashes to the series of extraordinary government interventions taken in response to this moment of crisis seem inevitable — and likely to reshape our politics for years to come.
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From Opinion: What does an election look like mid-pandemic?
On Tuesday, in a 12-minute video, former President Barack Obama re-emerged from his primary season dormancy to formally endorse Joe Biden, his avuncular vice president and his party’s presumptive nominee. Millions watched online, many huddled at home as a global pandemic — one that in 2014 he warned could arrive — wreaks havoc, taking lives and evaporating livelihoods. The Times columnist David Leonhardt noted in his newsletter (you can sign up here to receive it each weekday) that it seemed as though “Obama went out of his way to signal that he agrees with the party’s shift toward a more progressive agenda.”
Normally, the endorsement might have happened in the context of an enormous rally on the campaign trail. With social distancing measures in place that, of course, could not happen. Now, as the coronavirus spreads throughout the country, there are growing concerns about whether in-person voting can happen safely in the coming weeks and months. In an Op-Ed, John Delury, a historian of China and an expert on the Korean Peninsula, argued that “South Korea has been a model of testing and tracing during the epidemic. Now it is for voting, too.”
“They were the world’s first nationwide vote of the coronavirus era, and more than 29 million people — 66 percent of the electorate, the highest turnout in nearly three decades — cast ballots to choose 300 new members for the National Assembly,” he wrote. “Each polling station was equipped with hand sanitizer and disposable gloves; voters, wearing masks and standing far apart, had their temperatures checked at the entrances. No one seemed to feel they had to choose between exercising their democratic rights and protecting their health.”
—Talmon Joseph Smith
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