COVID-19, the Wuhan virus, is an epidemiological scourge — but it’s also a clarifying catalyst for American politics. The virus’s relevance for globalization has been widely noted: this disease of Chinese origin has exposed how incapable the de-industrialized West has become of providing its own masks, drugs, and ventilators.
It has highlighted the class divide that globalization produces within countries such as America as well. The highly educated professional classes can work from home, and their jobs are relatively secure; the service class, on the other hand — the waiters and cooks and hotel maids and retail clerks and others — are out of their jobs and shit out of luck. Not to worry: the professional class will write all of them checks for $1,200. Let them eat cake, you know?
In our nation’s capital region, DC and its suburbs, the divide is especially pronounced. Just before DC’s mayor and Virginia’s governor issued stay-at-home orders, practically all businesses had already shut down voluntarily. But I ventured out to the city one day and was surprised by what I saw: while the professionals had disappeared — the lobbyists and think-tankers and journalists and other non-essential workers — groundskeepers and maintenance staff were out in force, as many of them or even more than usual, tending to decorative greenery and the facades of the professionals’ buildings. I took the Metro, the DC subway, back home, and noticed that two things had changed. The trains were less crowded than normal but actually more crowded than they had been a week earlier: this was because the Metro system was running fewer trains, which logically enough meant that people who still had to go to work were packed onto the few that were still running. Those people who still had to go to work, or to use the Metro for other reasons, were not the white professional commuters, but mostly black and Hispanic service workers: maintenance men and others.
But if COVID-19 is so dangerous that people with six-figure incomes can’t go to work, why is it any less dangerous for non-whites who earn less than half as much? Why the hell were ferns still being planted outside ritzy office buildings? These workers were lucky to still have jobs, but their ongoing labor was a sign of just how selectively serious the professional classes really is about the disease. They get angry if anyone from their own class, or anyone in red-state America, doesn’t stay home and quiver to the appropriate wavelength of fear. But they evidently don’t think anything of people in the classes below them, not only the ones who are out of work but the ones who are still working just to keep up the appearances that are so beloved to the professional class. (God forbid some gray slab of masonry, steel, and glass should lack a fern or two to remind us that we’re all truly eco-sensitive.)
Since the shelter-in-place orders came into effect, I’ve seen the same thing in the suburbs where I live. Groundskeepers are out with leaf blowers and lawn-mowers, while professionals don’t exit their apartments until it’s time to take the poodle out for a poop or to go for a jog and spread sweat and heavy breathing around the community. (But that’s professional-class sweat, so it’s germ-free.) The whole thing is a transparent farce: either progressive professional types don’t believe their own hype, and are simply indulging in a bit of harmless (for them) disaster fantasy, or they are morally far worse than the mild skeptics and conservatives who call for more than just the hedge-trimmers to go back to work.
You can either believe that things are safe enough for cautious professionals to work, as well as the groundsmen, or you can believe that things are so dangerous that no lawn-mowing or leaf-blowing should take place. But urban progressives believe precisely that things are too dangerous for people like themselves and that the lawn still has to be manicured.
The green patches in gray cities aren’t the only places where COVID-19 has highlighted the hypocrisy of the progressive urban or suburban professional. The pandemic that the Chinese have unleashed — whether by eating bats or by studying their diseases in insecure laboratories — also reveals a lie at the heart of neoconservative foreign policy. Neoconservative foreign policy unites Democrats like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton with Republicans like George W. Bush and John McCain — all of whom backed the Iraq war in 2003. As Bush made clear in his second inaugural address the following year, the neoconservatives and other liberals expected the war to bear sweet fruit ‘because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind … the longing of the soul.’ Destroying Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime would therefore almost inevitably lead to liberal democracy.
Yet what COVID-19 has uncovered is a longing for something very different from freedom among the very people who make a habit out of claiming that freedom is a universal human aspiration. Progressive Americans and NeverTrump Republicans have been united in calling for strict lockdown measures, including against churches. When it comes to their reaction to COVID, these anti-Trump Republicans and Biden Democrats prefer policies much closer to those of authoritarian China than to those of democratic Sweden.
Yes, a pandemic is an emergency and may call for exceptional measures — but the speed and conviction with which progressive professionals have called for harsh restrictions, and their vehemence in trying to shut up skeptics and dissenters, speaks louder than the world of Bush’s second inaugural. Power, security, and conformity — moral reassurance through the obliteration of dissent — is what they desire, and we see it as clearly now as we did in the weeks after 9/11.
Non-elite Americans are not expected to exercise any liberty here: to question authority or offer their own thoughts (thought crimes as far as Facebook is concerned); to assemble to petition their masters; to freely exercise their religion. Though the elite may say such rights are universal, for the sake of slapping a moral veneer on war, when these rights are put to the test under stressful conditions at home, Americans are supposed to surrender them without debate. If you really believe that Americans are or ought to be so obedient, you can’t also believe that freedom is a universal human desire. Not unless ‘freedom’ only means ‘doing exactly what people like me want you to do.’
For now, America is still enough of a federal republic that voters in different regions, where different classes and cultures predominate, still get a decisive say on the presidential election. At stake in the Trump vs. Biden contest is the question of whether the fearful, censorious, illiberal elite will consolidate power by claiming the White House, or whether it will be impeded and rebuked by the re-election of Donald Trump. COVID-19 has not tipped the election decisively toward Biden, as anti-Trump pundits had predicted. What it has done is make all the more stark the difference between the class that gave us globalism and that would now squelch any dissent from the lockdown, and the rest of the country that puts jobs, faith, and freedom above the demands of the elite consensus.