July 8, 2020

Can Americans Follow Through?

The increasing number of COVID-19 cases, mostly in the South and West, was totally predictable. States went through a period of shutdown without developing testing and tracing capacity and without achieving the decreasing incidence explicitly recommended by White House guidelines (though ignored by the president himself). When states like Florida and Texas began “opening up” their states, people, especially young people, behaved like the contents of a shaken soda bottle that was suddenly uncapped. Masks were left at home; people gathered in large celebratory groups; and infections invariably followed. People were tired of restrictions, and politicians did not have the will (or the good sense) to assure that the re-opening of their states would be at least relatively safe from contagion. As a nation, America has not had the will to see the project of suppressing the coronavirus to a minimally damaging conclusion. Such a seeming failure of will is not unheard of but is not inevitable.

Americans have often seen existential challenges to the end. Despite repeated setbacks, the country pursued its fight for independence to a successful conclusion. The Union finally won the War to Preserve Slavery (i.e., the Civil War). There were protests about the war and about conscription, but the nation even held a presidential election in the middle of the war. World War II, despite its loss of life, its disruptions, and its privations was prosecuted successfully and led to the Pax Americana. Smaller conflicts that were not existential threats were too quickly concluded to inspire heavy opposition or caused too little disruption of everyday life for the citizens to demand their end (think the war in Afghanistan).

Unfortunately, Americans have not always responded courageously to significant moral challenges. The writing of the Declaration of Independence was nearly derailed over slavery, and American’s original sin persisted until the conclusion of the Civil War. Having finally put slavery behind us, the nation failed again, however, truncating Reconstruction and paving the way for the backlash that became Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement of the last half of the twentieth century rolled back many of the indignities long visited on Black people, but the gains were partial and, in many cases—think of the Voting Rights Act— did not last intact.

We now face two moral challenges, and it is unclear whether Americans have the will to overcome them. One is the current Black Lives Matter movement that seeks to reform policing, do away with monuments to the Confederacy, and achieve the promise of equal rights implicit in the Declaration of Independence and in Reconstruction. This revolution is centuries overdue. Will it be successful this time? That success is hardly assured. If Donald Trump is re-elected, the dream of equality will again be suppressed.

The second moral challenge we face simultaneously is overcoming the coronavirus. The opening up of states in the South and West is proving to be disastrous. Americans are impatient to return to their normal lives, and politicians, most notably the president, are exploiting that impatience. Will we be successful in minimizing the effects of the pandemic until a vaccine is available? Or will we sacrifice American lives out of collective impatience and the eagerness of the president to improve the economy to buoy his election chances?

It is unclear that America will meet either of these moral challenges. Eventually, of course, the coronavirus will be reduced to a manageable threat, as have been measles or polio. The cost in lives and treasure may be heavy, however.

It is less clear that justice for the race we once enslaved will, at last, be achieved.

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