A Republican Rising Star’s Plan to Reopen America

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina is keenly aware that COVID-19 is especially dangerous for African Americans. He’s also worried about small businesses.

Rainier Ehrhardt / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Senator Tim Scott tells the story of his life as a constant fight to help people at the bottom of society. “Our country has been struggling and striving in the right direction,” the Republican told me from Hanahan, South Carolina, where he was temporarily riding out the coronavirus outbreak and a spate of bad weather in his home state. But “we still have progress that needs to be made.” During his decade in Congress, Scott has pushed the Republican Party to remedy America’s inequality, largely focusing on programs that promote American business. The GOP’s 2017 tax-cut bill included a provision, championed by Scott, to create so-called Opportunity Zones meant to incentivize investment in poor areas around the country, although so far, the program has had mixed success.

Now Scott and the rest of his colleagues are facing an enormous test of their philosophy. Nothing in recent history has revealed America’s inequalities like the COVID-19 outbreak. White-collar employees get to remain at home while grocery-store clerks and warehouse workers continue risking their health. The rush to stock up on basic supplies has favored the rich, who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on groceries at a time. And the virus has hit communities of color particularly hard, with black Americans dying and being hospitalized at alarmingly high rates.

Scott has called on the Department of Health and Human Services to track data on these racial disparities. (He is one of just three African American senators, and the only Republican.) In our conversation, he was frank about the risks facing black Americans. But like other Republicans, Scott is also starting to call for the country to open back up. South Carolina is one of a few southern states that are beginning to ease restrictions, and Scott thinks that’s justified. “People are restless. They’re also ready to go back to work,” he said. “You cannot maintain a fully closed economy when … there are areas that you can start some activity without much risk.”

This is the tricky balance that Scott is constantly navigating: He is distinctively positioned to advocate for the needs of poor communities and people of color in the conservative world. But he is also set on protecting the pro-business interests of his party. In his new book, Opportunity Knocks, Scott writes about his desire for a “cultural renaissance” to replace the culture wars that “[pit] economic and racial classes against each other.” He has long prized his reputation as a politician more focused on practicalities than partisan bomb-throwing, regularly seeking out opportunities for bipartisan cooperation. But in our conversation, he bristled at any suggestion that the GOP, led by President Donald Trump, has recently leaned into the culture wars, stoking the exact resentments that Scott wishes to salve.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Emma Green: Do you think the United States is ready to reopen?

Tim Scott: The plan that’s been laid out is a very effective overview of what it takes for us to be able to reopen. It starts with a decline in cases, followed with making sure hospitals have capacity. We want to make sure we’re able to isolate hot spots and mitigate the spread of the virus. And the icing on the cake—as well as the flour for the cake—is testing.

To the extent that we continue to see testing increase, I think we can slowly walk towards reopening the economy in parts. It’s really important not to think of an economy as if it’s just one economy, but think about it in phases, sectors, and regions. Take South Carolina. Our governor is going to give our municipalities and our counties flexibility to start the process of reopening our cities, and some of those counties are going to say, “No, thank you.” The good news is the government closest to the people happens to be the government that people trust the most. Those local leaders will weigh in heavily on whether they’re prepared and ready for their communities to open, and if they’re not, then they won’t.

[Read: The conscience of a conservative]

Green: As you probably know, protesters have recently called on state governments to reopen the country—including in Columbia, South Carolina. Do you think these protesters are disregarding the potential health consequences for the populations that have been hit hardest by COVID-19?

Scott: I don’t think so. Six weeks ago, the estimates were that we were going to lose between 1 and 2.5 million Americans. We went into the social-distancing protocols. And because of that kind of energy and focus on flattening the curve, we are now seeing estimates around 60,000 lost lives.

Sixty thousand lost lives are 60,000 too many. But we should anticipate that people are restless. They’re ready to go back to work and to do those things that are productive and essential for their lives. We’re going to have a tightrope to walk in many ways, but you cannot maintain a fully closed economy when, in fact, there are areas where you can start some activity without much risk. If we’re going to wait until there’s no risk, we’re going to wait until a vaccine is out and everybody has it. That could be at least 18 months away. And there’s no way in the world a free country like America is going to wait that long for reopening.

[Read: Our pandemic summer]

Green: You write eloquently in your book about the need for opportunities to be created for low-income communities. Right now, the disparity in opportunities available to those communities is on display. Different groups, including African Americans and working-class people, are experiencing this pandemic in vastly different ways from their fellow Americans. Why do you think it is that some communities, and specifically people of color, are being hit so hard by this pandemic?

Scott: African Americans are not more predisposed to the virus. We simply have more of the underlying conditions that make it very difficult. Add on top of that, some of the social factors: 80 percent of African Americans cannot telework. The economic reality for so many African Americans is that we are below the middle class. Even more are living close to the poverty line. Folks living close to the border of poverty, they’re probably working and exposed more than the general public.

Couple that with high blood pressure, asthma, obesity, and other underlying conditions, and you find yourself in a very vulnerable state. Van Jones said it well: If you take a pill every day, or you should, stay home as much as you can. The same is true if you have pressure or low sugar—those are two colloquial phrases that mean high blood pressure or diabetes.

Green: So much of your work involves talking to communities and bringing their messages back to Washington. But certain policies from Washington also affect the conditions for fighting the pandemic. South Carolina is one of roughly a dozen U.S. states that has refused to accept federal money to expand access to Medicaid. Do you think policies like that have harmed people who are now getting sick, who haven’t been able to get consistent access to medical care?

Scott: I have to reject the premise of your question based on the reality of statistics. In Michigan, where they’ve expanded their Medicaid, 14 percent of the population is black, and they’ve been 40 percent of the deaths. So I’d be very careful not to try to blame some other action for where we are today. Medicaid expansion has not flattened the curve around the country. You can have that conversation in multiple ways, but then you’d have to have that conversation as well about the effects of Obamacare on the closure of rural hospitals throughout the states. I just think either conversation is unhelpful for trying to figure out how to go forward today. I don’t want to blame the Obama administration or the Trump administration or any administration for a global pandemic that seems to be wreaking havoc from China to America, from Italy to Mexico.

[Read: The social-distancing culture war has begun]

Green: I think your record shows that you’re a classic Republican in one sense: You believe in promoting small business and creating opportunities through the private sector. But in your book, you also criticize people who would rather wage a culture war that pits racial and economic classes against each other than make things happen.

I wonder if you feel like the Republican Party has moved away from that party where you used to feel at home, where you could get things done as a legislator rather than pitting people against each other.

Scott: It almost sounds like you’re asking me if the Republican Party is pitting people against each other. Is that your question?

Green: I think there’s a case to be made that both Democrats and Republicans engage in that. But certainly you could point to some of President Trump’s tweets and other campaign rhetoric that absolutely tries to pit groups against one another.

Scott: I’m not sure if you paid attention to the Hillary Clinton campaign for president in 2016, where she spoke about the “deplorables.” I don’t know that I would suggest that either party intentionally looks for ways to divide our country into racial groups. If we are, then I would say that the [Democratic] Party has focused on tribalism, trying to divide the pie based on who you are, what you look like, far more than the Republican Party has.

Our nation is blessed with really good leadership on both sides at times. But I think the philosophy of what leads to a better America is the Republican philosophy. We’re not perfect and I don’t think we ever will be, but I do think we hold out the best hope—especially for the folks who are at the bottom of the food chain economically—more than the other side. The Democrats, who may be well intentioned, have a basis in socialism, which is unhelpful for people at the bottom. Socialism aggregates decisions and money to the top. That hasn’t worked in any place on Earth so far. The best shot, without any question, is a system where you, the individual, have the greatest impact on your life.

Our country has been struggling and striving in the right direction to make the playing field as fair and as equal as possible, and we still have progress that needs to be made. And I’m going to continue to fight for it. I’m going to work with folks who are looking for ways to make progress, no matter what Republican/Democrat label they wear or don’t wear. I think if we all do that, we’ll be better off.

Green: Do you think there’s an opportunity to create unity in America in the wake of the pandemic?

Scott: Oh, yeah. I think America sees her best days after a crisis. The aftermath mentality—when Americans bind themselves to other people no matter what they look like, no matter where they’re from, no matter what they believe—and they fight together, not against each other: that is the most amazing and beautiful picture of what’s possible in this nation.

What I offered in the book is this: If you want to see us at our best, it’s the aftermath mentality. The question is: Can we live the aftermath mentality without having to go through a crisis? That is quite a conundrum.