Unexceptional Is the New Normal

The best thing I’ve read this week: American exceptionalism was our preexisting condition, by Dan Zak at WaPo. Here’s just a bit:

Perhaps we ignored our preexisting conditions for too long. In 1979, Jimmy Carter admitted to a national “crisis of confidence,” in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and energy shortages. But then we shut our eyes and pictured Ronald Reagan’s “shining city,” as wealth oozed upward. We believed Bill Clinton’s pep talk about how our best qualities excused our worst, which included prioritizing mass incarceration. We cloaked George W. Bush’s costly foreign policy in pageant-style patriotism and then believed Barack Obama’s insistence that Americans were not as divided as we seemed. Meanwhile, big banks crashed the economy and got bailed out, white people in rural areas started dying “deaths of despair,” black people kept getting killed by police at disproportionately high rates, and more Americans turned to conspiracy theories to make sense of it all and prescription pills to blunt the pain.

Then a minority of voters elected as president a salesman who built his empire on fraudspectacle and bankruptcy. Three years and 20,000 “false or misleading claims” later, the reality-show presidency is reaching a dramatic first-season climax marked by mass death, rampant joblessness, tens of millions of people in the streets. …

… “You can no longer pretend that ‘the American century’ isn’t over,” says Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago. She views the years since 1968 as a cycle of recessions and widening inequality, debt and disenfranchisement that is only now becoming apparent to broader America — white America, moneyed America — because the pandemic and social media have made it impossible to ignore. Institutions have been deteriorating and failing us for generations, she says, but we rigged workarounds with our own social networks and mutual-aid groups. We made do. Then the pandemic scattered us, isolated us, exposed us for what we really are. …

… The coronavirus is “fueled upon the systemic injustices in our country,” says Cedric Dark, an emergency-room physician and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The contagion doesn’t just spread because of proximity or air droplets; it feeds on disparity in housing, insurance, transportation, wages, child care, food security. Our current failure is built on previous failures.


“All these years after the Civil War, are we still just a union of states — or have we become a nation of people?”

That’s the question Shermer will ask the students in her U.S. history survey course. She’s watched governors battle the president and states squabble over stocks of personal protective equipment. Meanwhile the movement of Black Lives Matter has behaved like a nation of people, demanding something more, something holistic, something that was promised centuries ago.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are flailing about trying to come up with a new relief package. Paul Waldman:

The first thing they’ve done is drop Trump’s demand for a payroll tax cut, because it was a dumb idea that no one except Trump liked. But Republicans are still squabbling among themselves, particularly over how much help to give those tens of millions of unemployed Americans.

The Cares Act provided for an extra $600 a week for people who are unemployed, on top of what they would normally get from their state. In some cases, this meant workers would actually bring in more than they had been paid while they were employed, which many conservatives found appalling. And now with that $600 benefit set to expire next week, those conservatives want to make sure we stop coddling this nation of layabouts.

The result is a conflict within the GOP between, among others, Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, both of whom would like to be president one day:

Cruz vented his frustrations in private at a lunch Tuesday. As Republican lawmakers continued to add costly items to the ballooning virus aid package, he asked, “What in the hell are we doing?” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was similarly vocal about spending concerns, even though others — such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — argued in favor of spending a little more so that Republican senators in tough reelection races would have tangible policy wins to bring home for voters and help the party’s chances of retaining control of the chamber.

They both have a reasonable case to make, at least from where they sit. Cotton is right that Republicans are headed for disaster, and if they want to give Trump any chance of winning — and keep themselves from being pulled down with him — they should be showering every penny they can find on the economy.

Republicans are very, very bothered that some folks have been getting more money on unemployment than they got when they were working. So their current bright idea is to cap unemployment benefits at 70 percent of one’s former wage. That might not be enough to pay rent and buy groceries, but that’ll teach those deadbeats to get laid off because of a pandemic. Or something.

See also Seung Min Kim and Rachael Bade, Republican feuding this week represents broader reckoning over party’s future as Trump sinks in the polls.