Five hundred thousand deaths can be hard to picture. But we have to try. Imagine, for instance, that everyone in Miami, Colorado Springs or Minneapolis died in the course of a single year. If that seems too absurd, combine the number of Americans who died in the second world war, Korea and Vietnam, then imagine that they too had been killed in a single year, on American soil.
But such thought exercises only get us so far. They help us understand the scale and speed of the coronavirus crisis, but not much else. In particular, they don’t help us appreciate the ways in which death has been unequally distributed across America, and how that has affected society’s response. The disappearance of an entire city would affect a broad cross-section of society, while wars tend to unify the whole nation even as they kill mostly the young. But coronavirus is different, generating neither equal suffering nor equal concern. Instead, it disproportionately kills the elderly, the poor and racial minorities.
These inequalities have shaped America’s response to the virus profoundly, with Republicans minimizing its risk and Democrats seeing it for the national emergency which it is. Republican dismissal of the virus has in part been due to the tooth-and-claw individualism that forms a key part of American identity, but it would not have been possible without something more. It has also been based on the idea that the dead were somehow expendable because of who they were.
It comes as no surprise that Republican politicians show little concern for the poor or minorities. But for the lack of concern to extend even to seniors, who form such a key Republican voting bloc, the ideological blinkers must be powerful indeed.
Not all prominent Republican voices went as far as the Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who suggested that the elderly ought to be willing to sacrifice their lives in order to save the economy. But the general drumbeat of misinformation and minimization, from Donald Trump on down, showed at best a profound indifference to the fates of the senior Americans who make up the vast proportion of the dead, and yet whose fate is presented as incidental to the need to “reopen the economy”.
If the Republican response has been based on a characteristically narrow definition of which Americans are worthy of saving, the response of other parts of society has been much more uplifting. The challenge of the coronavirus has also called forth exactly the things which have always made America truly great but which the contemporary political right stands against: expertise, technological progress, a sense of civic duty, and an inclusive definition of Americanness. Although these ideas remain under assault, Joe Biden’s victory represents the triumph of these values over their opposites – and most of all a victory for the idea that all American lives are worth saving, regardless of whether they are considered economically valuable or not.
For this reason, it has been incredibly encouraging to see that the Biden administration has recognized that the response to the virus must also involve addressing the structural inequities revealed by it. Measures such as raising the minimum wage to $15 are morally required after low-paid, disproportionately non-white essential workers have kept society humming at great personal risk during the pandemic. They are also popular among the public at large. Support for raising the minimum wage is at 61%, and 68% of Americans support Biden’s broader economic relief plan.
Although Biden’s victory was a necessary first step, the deep callousness revealed by the pandemic will take much more than one election to address. In 2012, Mitt Romney famously lamented the 47% of the population who he said could never be convinced to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives”. But the pandemic has shown that this gets the American problem precisely backwards. The real problem isn’t people who refuse to take responsibility for themselves, but those who refuse to take responsibility for others – including the 47% of the electorate who voted for Donald Trump despite the complete disregard for America life he showed in the handling of the pandemic.
What can be done about this 47%? In the short-term, not a great deal. There is little reason to believe they can be won over. Another lesson of the pandemic has been just how deep America’s divisions are – not even a deadly plague has brought together the two sides in what Biden has called America’s “uncivil war”. If the Republican party remains a primarily destructive rather than constructive force, then Democrats must abandon their hopes of bipartisanship and push on without it.
Ultimately, Democrats must demonstrate to people the value of a government which cares for their wellbeing, materially, medically and otherwise. Building a coalition of care ought to be easier than a coalition of indifference. But in order to do it, Democrats must seize the opportunity to address the deeper American problems which the virus has revealed. Offering meaningful improvements to people’s lives isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s also the best way of guarding against the return to power of those who couldn’t care less whether their fellow Americans live or die.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States at Leiden University, and host of the podcast America Explained