The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution

Sanders, Warren, and others wanted to remake American politics, but the pandemic radically scaled back what’s possible.

An illustration of a raised fist overset with stamped outlines of viruses
Sergio Sergo / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

There was a before and an after. Before the seriousness of the pandemic set in, Democrats—and Americans more generally—were divided on whether the moment required deep, structural change. Perhaps it required something less ambitious: a return to normalcy, to the quiet comforts of calm and stability. In that theory, represented by former Vice President Joe Biden, Donald Trump was at once the problem and an aberration in the American story’s broader sweep. This wasn’t a time for radical moves. There was only a need for removing Trump from the presidency. And once he was gone, the country would regain its footing, and we could return to our insistent, if somewhat boring and stubbornly incremental, path to progress.

The “structuralists,” represented by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, had a very different reading. They argued that Trump wasn’t the problem or the cause. Rather, he was the symptom of long-standing inequities and injustices in the economic and political system. The way to handle Trump was to address the structures that made someone like him possible in the first place. This was why Biden seemed, to skeptics such as myself and to the American left more generally, a weak candidate, but more important a weak would-be president. He seemed completely unsuited for any deeper reckoning with where we had ended up and why. Why should we merely return to normal, if normal is what gave us Trump? Normal wasn’t good enough.

Then the virus came. The sense of possibility that came with a supposedly radical candidate seems today like an artifact of another world—one we no longer live in. Even before the social distancing, self-quarantines, and lockdowns, the perpetual crisis that characterized Trump’s governing style had already produced starkly different reactions among Democrats. This is what crisis does: It can make people demand revolution, or it can make them long for stability. A significant number of voters—in particular African Americans—found in Joe Biden welcome reassurance, and they saw him as the safest bet to remove their most proximate sense of threat. That longing for safety and security has now been magnified for many more Americans. (As Ross Douthat of The New York Times recently wrote, the pandemic will alter our memory of the Democratic primary. As history will remember it, many years from now, Sanders will have lost agency, having been “vanquished by an act of God”).

One can take only so much crisis before the desire for vaguely normal lives and vaguely competent leaders takes hold. We should have realized how lucky we were to work from an office (working from home is overrated), to go out with friends to a favorite restaurant, to be among the people we cared about, and to be reassured that our leaders, however flawed, had our best interests at heart. Deprived of those things, the baseline of expectations could only change, at least in the short run.

I, for one, have changed. I am more willing to accept “mere” normalcy today than I was just a month ago. Some of this has to do with the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities and how each of us copes with crisis. I’m too tired and too afraid to believe in the promise of politics right now. What I do feel, instead, is the smallness of politics. Some of the biggest controversies of recent years seem almost silly in retrospect—and certainly in comparison. “Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life or death, literally or economically,” Tom McTague recently wrote in The Atlantic. Indeed, more of Britain’s wealth and savings have been wiped out in a month than Brexit might have erased in a year (or five). Meanwhile, the Trump impeachment trial is all but forgotten. The killing in January of the Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani brought with it the unfounded panic of impending regional war, or worse. And, technically, the Democratic primary is still going on, but it has receded to a faint background murmur.

To be struck by the relative irrelevance of political and ideological combat—however much I otherwise enjoy it—is to be tempted to retreat into the personal and private. In a state of semi-isolation, I want to read more, cook more, meditate more, pray more, and think more. For those who believed in Bernie Sanders and how he might have otherwise changed American politics, there is also mourning, which can bring a perverse pleasure, feeding what the writer Sam Adler-Bell calls a “bitterly hopeful disposition.” He writes, “Conditioned by history to expect defeat—to see it as inevitable, the product of malevolent forces beyond our control—we welcome its arrival with something like relief.”

The left-wing retort of “don’t mourn, organize!” at least attempts to take the melancholy of defeat and make it into something productive and affirming. But, today, the option of organizing isn’t as readily available, not just in physical terms but in psychological ones. It is harder to build something new when you feel suspended in time and place, waiting for the after of a pandemic to arrive.

So, then, what happens whenever after comes? Since an event like this hasn’t happened before in our lifetimes, the speculation is wild, and it covers an overwhelming range of possibilities. The left-wing hope is that the pandemic will demonstrate the need for national and universal healthcare. Some on the right see the crisis as further fueling distrust of institutions, authorities, and elites, redounding as it often does to the benefit of populists. For nationalists, the virus offers up a reminder of the virtues of hunkering down, fearing foreigners and travel, and railing against globalization and the intertwining supply chains that sustain it. In a piece titled “We’re All Orbán Now,” referring to the controversial Hungarian prime minister, National Review’s Rich Lowry writes, “This crisis is bringing home that, when push comes to shove, everyone believes in borders.” Meanwhile, a corner of the anti-globalization right believes that this is the right moment, finally, to resuscitate the idea of autarky, or economic self-sufficiency.

Related to this is the question of whether the mounting deaths from the virus will bring us together or tear us apart. Which “authentic” version of ourselves will it reveal—the selfish or the sacrificing? The history of pandemics isn’t encouraging. As the author Ben Judah pointed out on Twitter, “The Black Death led to a terrifying spike in antisemitism and pogroms with Jews being accused of poisoning the wells, being immune, or having bought down the wrath of heaven.” In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe writes of the plague descending on London in the 17th century: “But, alas! This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them that they had no room to pity the distresses of others; for every one had death, as it were, at his door.” More recently, during the Spanish-flu pandemic of 1918–20, more than 650,000 Americans died, yet, as the New York Times columnist David Brooks notes, “When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it … Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become.”

Who will we become?

Western democracies—including the United States—are fundamentally different from what they were a century ago. They are more democratic, and we as citizens are more equal. We are less siloed and more aware of what other regions and communities are dealing with. In relative terms, we have better social safety nets and stronger, more interventionist states than those that had to contend with the Spanish flu. If the death tolls were higher, resembling the literal apocalypse, these anchors would likely begin to collapse, forcing citizens to prioritize survival of themselves and their loved ones, the collective be damned. But short of that, it means that the safety of the individual depends on the safety of the community—and ultimately the nation.

In Game of Thrones, the character Beric Dondarrion grandiosely intoned, “Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last.” Americans will be looking for an enemy, so this sentiment might prove appropriate. If the sheer scope of the threat—akin to a war or a foreign invasion—creates a collective sense of fear and anxiety and urgency, then the partisanship and ideological divisions that previously defined who we were (and who we weren’t) will be blunted to some degree. For example, if it means saving our economy and preventing the collapse of health-care infrastructure, then Republicans, whatever their ideological premises, will do things they otherwise wouldn’t do—such as the sort of aggressive economic stimulus normally associated with the left or something that sounds a lot like universal basic income. They already are. For the left, though, this is less a victory than a co-optation. And knowing what we know about wartime—and real threats, rather than imagined ones—more voters may be willing to rally around the flag and give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

As the journalist Ezra Klein, in the pre-coronavirus age, lamented and feared, external threats are often what unify Americans. If Americans come together, as I pray we will, we will need to understand that, yes, our government made mistakes. Trump’s initial handling of the virus was a master class in incompetence and deflection, and voters will have the opportunity to punish him at the ballot box. But one’s view of Trump is no longer the primary dividing line in our politics.

If a pandemic is akin to a war, then nationalism and the solidarity that national feeling brings could prove to be positive by-products. If we are under attack, it’s only natural that we would feel more strongly about who we are. This is an ideological, rather than an ethnic, “nationalism.” There is still the risk that these sentiments, particularly in the hands of xenophobes, will turn darker. If that happens, the rest of us will need to stay vigilant and resist the temptations of misdirected anger.

For now, though, we can take solace that the enemy is not one another. Other Americans are no longer the threat, and, in fact, they never were. Those are the smaller divides of American politics. We will have the ability to return to them in due time, and perhaps that will be part of the normalcy we are already craving. For now, though, it is worth remembering the concentric circles of attachment and allegiance that are the most important: family, friends, community, and, perhaps less fashionable, the nation. In what for many of us may be the closest thing we ever experience to a war zone, these are the things I—and I hope we—hold dear.