The 2020 election was a contest between the centrist elements in the Democratic Party — as embodied by President-elect Joe Biden and his reputed neoliberal policies — and the resurgent fascist politics of an updated party of white supremacists and ultra-nationalists. It is a meaningful, though limited, victory that the crude white supremacist side of capitalism has lost the election, and it would not have happened if not for the hard work of grassroots organizers, who were fighting not for Biden, but against a fascist future.
Still, even amid the celebrations of this step, we must face the threat that the now-empowered centrist elements in the Democratic Party are likely to continue to reverse the legacy of the New Deal and maintain relations of power that sustain if not increase vast inequities in US wealth and power.
In offering voters Biden’s neoliberalism as the only alternative to Trump’s fascistic politics, the election revealed the failure of the Democratic Party to address the economic reality faced by working-class people as a result of the scourge of neoliberalism with its mantra of austerity, privatization and deregulation.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign is already participating in downplaying the full urgency of the fascist threat that Trump posed to democracy. In his acceptance speech, Biden claimed that there is no red or blue America but a United States of America — a statement that may be strategic in attempting to gain mass support for the democratic transfer of power in January, but that fails to acknowledge that over 70 million people voted to embrace Trump’s fascist politics with enthusiasm.
Biden’s acceptance speech reiterated the well-worn narratives of centrist politics, including the undying embrace of a mythical American dream waiting to resurrect itself again. Imagine how much more powerful this appeal would be if instead of seeking to win public support for his mandate through these Trump-like statements, Biden sought to offer convincing policies that large swaths of the working class could support, especially those elements of the working class hit hardest by the pandemic.
Instead of offering the public a universal health care plan, huge investments in crucial infrastructure, guaranteed basic income, a moratorium on evictions, support for a Green New Deal, or an updated Marshall Plan for creating millions of jobs, Biden and the party regulars have continued to use empty phrases such as “restoring the soul of America.”
In place of such liberal platitudes, what this country needs right now is a robust agenda that addresses a diverse racial and ethnic working class and prioritizes “the upgrading of schools, clinics, roads, mass transit systems, waterworks, and other public services with good-paying jobs,” as Ralph Nader has argued.
Focusing largely on the important goal of bringing the pandemic under control, Biden overlooked the fact that, for many working-class people, being powerless and viewed as disposable was as threatening as the fear of getting sick or dying from the pandemic. Containing the pandemic was a key issue, and working-class people, particularly people of color, are undoubtedly hardest hit by COVID. However, Biden should have also addressed other core issues impacting millions of working-class people whose incomes have been stagnant for 40 years, who have suffered the humiliation of being evicted from their homes, and who have watched as their jobs dried up and their towns turned into landscapes of despair and dashed hopes.
Missing from Biden’s neoliberal script was the scourge of the carceral state, a call for massively reducing the military budget, the horrible consequences of global capitalism, the financialization of the economy, and the toxic effects of deindustrialization.
Trump’s fascist politics, once again, stepped into this void, feeding off the powerlessness felt by so many Americans, all the while stoking their racial fears and offering fantasies that proved far more effective than the Democrats’ empty neoliberal rhetoric. Trump offered their heightened sense of contempt and resentment of the elite with a script that promised what Mark Danner has called a kind of “imaginary revenge.”
The real issue in this election is not simply the story of winners and losers, but the death of the social sphere, evisceration of the welfare state, the broad appeal of right-wing populism, and the destruction of the formative public institutions and civic culture which produced the crucial democratic values of solidarity, trust, compassion, economic equality, and most of all, a sense of ethical and social responsibility. The limitations of what could be hoped for in this election made clear once again the long legacy of the ongoing assault on meaningful politics and its slow death. A long-simmering racist and fascist culture of lies has shredded any hope of the shared values necessary to give meaning to the relationship between truth and social responsibility, citizenship and compassion. In the current election, the legacy of shared fears, falsehoods, racism and lawlessness came home to roost destroying the values and shared standards necessary to distinguish right from wrong, compassion from expedience, economic activity from social costs.
The United States has become a fortress of militarized ignorance, hate and resentment. The barriers and boarded storefronts that went up before the election may be coming down, but their presence symbolized a deeper reality that will be with the United States for some time to come in the future.
The tsunami of violence, rhetorical and real, now moves beyond the rhetoric of a dictatorial mode of governance into the realm of a heavily polarized country willing “to lock American democracy into an undetermined, perhaps indeterminable, condition.” The current culture of fear began with 9/11, revealed its ugly truth regarding the priority of profits over human needs with the 2008 financial crisis, and the pandemic and current economic crisis made visible the deep-seated racism and white supremacy and white nationalism at the center of power in the United States. Such fears have reached their endpoint in the rise of a fascist politics coupled with those who aid it and those who deny it. While Biden’s win succeeds in ejecting white nationalists like Stephen Miller from the White House, it does not change the fundamental reality that we face: a United States in which overt white supremacy has been emboldened and received mainstream affirmation in chilling new ways. The election did nothing to challenge that. Moreover, it is crucial to acknowledge that Trumpism is vigorously alive in a Republican Party that embraces minority rule and all the toxic policies — voter suppression, packing the Supreme Court, gerrymandering, and other tactical strategies — that both undermine democracy and ensure an embrace of authoritarianism. This is a party for whom only selected voters count (read: white voters) and “the majority can be conjured out of existence.” There is no morality here, only the crude pragmatism of a fascist politics and a large segment of the population along with Trump’s political lackeys who embraced his authoritarianism with zeal.
Regardless of Biden’s win, we still live in a world that appears to have descended into Dante’s version of hell. This is a world marked by horrifying political horizons — a world in which authoritarian and medical pandemics merge in what resembles a dystopian nightmare. In this age of uncertainty, time and space have collapsed into a void of shared apprehensions, relentless anxieties and the possibility of a human rights abyss. The terrors of everyday life manifest themselves in the metrics of rising infections, body counts and the daily risk of contamination, sickness or worse.
Amid this collective terror, the architecture of authoritarianism resurfaced under Trump with a vengeance in the form of a waking nightmare with a cast of horrors. Surveillance technologies proliferated; armed militia defended groups refusing to wear protective masks and intimidated those who did; voter suppression was in full swing; conspiracy theories originated or were legitimated by President Trump; immigrant children were forcibly separated from their parents — sometimes disappearing into internment camps with no hope of reuniting with their families. Echoes of a fascist past surfaced in news accounts in which imprisoned female immigrants were victims of forced sterilization; political rallies emboldened the language of hate and violence; and a steady stream of politicians and reactionary media pundits used vitriolic language against almost anyone who criticized Trump’s destructive and death-dealing policies, including Democratic governors and liberal and progressive members of the press.
In this post-election climate, the COVID-19 plague points to more than a medical pandemic and must be understood as part of a more comprehensive narrative. For instance, the disproportionate impact of the virus on poor people of color makes clear that the struggle “for public health, goods, services, social protections, and human rights, with special provisions for the most vulnerable, including the precariat, migrant workers … indigenous peoples” and the elderly cannot be separated from broader struggles for social equality, economic justice and democracy. The horror of the pandemic often overshadows the fact that anti-democratic economic and political forces that have prioritized profits over more urgent human needs have ground away at the social order for the last 50 years. The COVID-19 crisis is deeply rooted in years of neglect by hyper-capitalist governments that denied the importance of public health, the public good and the commons while defunding institutions that made them possible.
At the same time, this crisis cannot be separated from the crisis of massive inequalities in wealth, income and power that grew relentlessly since the 1970s. Nor can it be separated from a crisis of democratic values, critical education and the civic imagination. With respect to the latter, the COVID-19 pandemic is deeply interconnected with the politicization of the social order through the destructive assaults waged by casino capitalism on the welfare state, all manner of social provisions and the ecosystem. Underlying the magnitude of the current pandemic, there is the crucial and demanding question of: What kind of world do we want to live in today and build for in the future?
The pandemic has revealed the ugly and cruel face of an extreme form of capitalism, which has relentlessly attacked the social contract, the public sphere and the common good since the 1970s. I use the term neoliberalism to define this libertarian, market-driven form of capitalism which gained prominence in Chile, under General Pinochet in the 1970s with the help of the University of Chicago Economics Department and Milton Friedman. It was later implemented by U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who infamously stated, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Soon afterwards, President Ronald Reagan argued that, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Of course, these ideas were later embraced with great enthusiasm by Stephen Harper, the former prime minister of Canada. The endpoint here was an attempt to discredit any viable sense of government responsibility.
Implicit in these views is a neoliberal worldview that takes as its central organizing idea the assumption that the market should govern not only the economy, but all aspects of society. In addition, it promotes untrammeled self-interest, indulgent individualism, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a financial elite, and removes economic activity from social costs. Neoliberalism views government as the enemy of the market, limits society to the realm of the family and individuals, embraces a fixed hedonism and challenges the very idea of the common good. In this logic, “individual interests are the only reality that matters and those interests are purely monetary.”
In addition, neoliberalism cannot be disconnected from the spectacle of fearmongering, ultra-nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and bigotry that has dominated the national zeitgeist in the U.S., Brazil and a number of other countries as a means of promoting shared anxieties rather than shared responsibilities. Through its destruction of the economy, environment, education and public health care, neoliberal capitalism has created a petri dish for the virus to wreak havoc and wide-scale destruction.
Under neoliberalism, the language of the public good and community is replaced by the market-driven rhetoric of commodification, privatization, deregulation and commercialization. One consequence is that public goods whither and begin to fail. That is, as Naomi Klein observes the “publicly owned bones of society” — public education, public health systems, roads, bridges, levees, water systems — are underfunded, and in many ways, pushed to the breaking point of disrepair and dysfunctionality. [Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), pp. 152-153] Moreover, the bonds of trust and solidarity are replaced by the bonds of fear and suspicion, and a growing culture of cruelty. Drained of civic values and lacking a commanding vision, the institutions of liberal democracy atrophied, further undermining civic literacy, historical memory and the capacity to discern the truth from falsehoods.
Neoliberalism is not just an economic system, but also an ideological and cultural system that functions as a powerful educational force. Its presence is on display daily in the rise of the corporate-controlled social media that has accelerated a culture of distraction, immediacy and self-absorption. In this overabundance of civic glut, language has succumbed to the aesthetics of vulgarity. What is new about the era in which we live is that the attack on the welfare state and common good is increasingly legitimated and normalized through oppressive forms of education in a variety of sites such as newspapers, social media, magazines and popular culture. This is the space in which willful ignorance, the disdain of science, the repudiation of evidence and conspiracy theories are produced. Moreover, these views are reinforced and reciprocated at the highest levels of government. Far from being objective sources of information or innocent forms of entertainment, these cultural apparatuses have become disinformation and disimagination machines that objectify people of color, promote spectacles of violence and endorse consumerism as the only viable way of life. This emptying out of social relations, democratic values and visions of the good life legitimates a language of exclusion, bigotry and white nationalism.
One result is that the distinction between fact and fiction disappear and “somewhere along the way, the democratization of the flow of information [becomes] the democratization of the flow of disinformation.” Lost here is a critical language capable of producing a narrative that promotes shared values and enables people to develop the sustained connections crucial to a vibrant democracy. All of this was on display in Trump’s campaign of misinformation and lies about both the pandemic and about almost everything else. As a tabloid anti-intellectual who thrives in a culture of spectacle, entertainment and distraction, Trump emptied politics of any substantive meaning given his efforts to both infantilize and depoliticize the public while disdaining any effort at critical analysis, translation or self-reflection. All that was left is what Viktor Frankl in 1965 called “the mask of nihilism.”
In Trump’s hands, ignorance was not innocent and provided a legitimating force from the center of power to fuel a number of extremist groups that use the corporate media and social media to peddle their hatred, lies and self-serving ignorance. Soon after the election, Trump prematurely declared victory, spread lies about the legitimacy of the election, questioned its fairness, and in doing so ran the risk of provoking outrage and sowing potential violence on the part of his more extremist supporters. He claimed that any suggestion he had lost was “a fraud on the American people” and that any further counting of votes after the election should stop. The language of violence, fear and lies has been the preferred political drug of the Trump presidency. In the past he has threatened Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi, supported violent right-wing extremists such as the Proud Boys, defended the 17-year-old who fatally shot two protesters in Wisconsin, and demanded that his Attorney General William Barr arrest Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s penchant for violence has also asserted itself dangerously in the post-election climate. As Josh Israel observes:
Just two days ago, Trump appeared to egg on his supporters to respond with armed rebellion should states like Pennsylvania attempt to count all the votes. “The Supreme Court decision on voting in Pennsylvania is a VERY dangerous one,” he tweeted. “It will allow rampant and unchecked cheating and will undermine our entire systems of laws. It will also induce violence in the streets. Something must be done!” He was referencing a court ruling allowing the state to count ballots postmarked on time and received within three days of the election in the state. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that many of his supporters appear to be taking that advice seriously. Dozens of users on a pro-Trump online message board posted messages urging “war” to stop Democrats from “trying to STEAL the election.” One wrote that they are “standing by and keeping my rifle by my side.”
There is more at stake here than Trump’s false claim that he won the election and his unwillingness to accept a peaceful transition of power. There is also a threat this malignant Trump presidency has posed to both American lives and democracy itself given its wantonly destructive and tragic failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The multiple threats produced during the Trump regime have an afterlife and will not disappear with Trump’s defeat.
It is important to acknowledge that the COVID-19 plague must also be understood as part of a more comprehensive political and educational narrative in which neoliberalism plays a central role. Trump’s enduring narrative and politics of death was about more than failed leadership, it was also about the scourge of neoliberalism. In this case, we cannot separate the struggle for public health and the common good from the struggles for emancipation, social equality, economic justice and democracy itself.
As engaged citizens, it is crucial to examine the anti-democratic and iniquitous political, economic and social forces that have intensified the pandemic while failing to contain it. These are not merely economic and political issues, but also educational considerations. Two of the more obvious questions include: How does a society driven by the accumulation of capital at any cost, with its appropriation of market-based values and regressive notions of freedom and agency, use culture, education and language to produce identities, values and modes of agency? How can any democratic society survive a market-driven notion of freedom in which free will and choice are untouched by any broader notion of constraints and views responsibility as a purely personal phenomenon? Lost here is any sense of the social, the public and the connections that support the common good and the general welfare of society.
Oppressive forms of education have now become central elements of a society threatened by a number of pandemics that endanger human life and the planet itself. The propaganda machines of the right-wing media echo the Trump regime’s support for conspiracy theories, lies about testing and fake cures for the virus, all the while engaging in a politics of evasion and denial that covers up both Trump’s incompetence and the machineries of violence, greed and terminal exclusion at the core of a society that believes that the market is the template for governing not just the economy, but all aspects of society.
In a society marked by the proliferation of disimagination machines operating both at the highest levels of government and throughout society, matters of truth, evidence and science fall prey to the language of mystification and legitimates a tsunami of ignorance and the further collapse of civic culture and any sense of shared citizenship. The coronavirus pandemic now works in tandem with corporate media conglomerates to produce identities defined narrowly by market values, while normalizing a notion of individual responsibility that convinces people that whatever problems they face they have no one to blame but themselves. This market-based ideology operates under the depoliticizing false assumption that there are only individual solutions to socially produced problems, and reinforces states of individual alienation and isolation, which increasingly are normalized, rendering human beings numb and fearful, immune to the demands of economic and social justice and increasingly divorced from matters of politics, ethics and social responsibility.
This amounts to a form of depoliticization in which individuals develop a propensity to descend into a moral stupor and a deadening cynicism, all the while becoming increasingly susceptible to political shocks, and the seductive pleasure of the manufactured spectacle. As the connections between democracy and education wither, hope becomes the enemy of agency, and agency is reduced to learning how to survive rather than working to improve the conditions that bear down on one’s life and society in general. Dealing with life’s problems becomes a solitary affair, reducing matters of social responsibility to a regressive and depoliticized notion of individual choice. In this instance, the political becomes regressively personal, rendering difficult any critical understanding of wider systemic forces while undermining any viable notion of critical agency and collective resistance. This form of depoliticization — with its refiguring of the social sphere, individual responsibility, historical memory, critical thinking and collective identity — reinforces an acute indifference, withdrawal from public life and a disdain for politics, all of which in a time of tyranny amounts to a political and ethical catastrophe.
The U.S. and several other countries are in the midst of a medical, racial, political, economic and educational crisis which touches every aspect of public life. Unfortunately, the crises many countries are experiencing have not been matched by a crisis of ideas — that is, a critical understanding of the conditions that produced the crises in the first place. Within this crisis of ideas, matters of poverty, economic inequality and racial injustices disappear. Missing from this crisis is a recognition that the globe is in a new historical period produced by a hyper-capitalist system that lacks a commanding vision of democracy and is at odds with any just, prudent and equitable notion of the future.
The COVID-19 plague cannot be separated from a broader plague of hyper-capitalism, right-wing populism and the surge of authoritarian politics around the globe. These forces represent the underside of the pandemic and relentlessly subject workers, the elderly, the homeless, the poor, children, people of color and more recently, frontline hospital and emergency workers (and all those others considered at risk) to lives of despair, precarity, massive danger, and in some cases, death. At the roots of this larger pandemic are an unbridled lawlessness and deep-seated disdain for critical thought, meaningful forms of education and any mode of analysis that holds power accountable.
The full-blown pandemic has revealed with laser beam clarity both the irrationality and incapability of a profit-driven capitalism in dealing with a global public health crisis that has been as catastrophic as it has been deadly. The horrors of inequality, compulsory austerity, defunding of public health systems and the collapse of the economy under the rubrics of extreme capitalism are finally being acknowledged as the fundamental plague behind the current pandemic. As Richard D. Wolff has argued, private capitalism cannot “protect and maintain public health and safety,” because it “pursues profits at the expense of more urgent social needs and values…. This pandemic is now bringing that truth home to people.” He has also rightly argued that “both major parties function as cheerleaders for capitalism under all circumstances, when a killer pandemic coincides with a major capitalist crash.”
COVID-19 has produced an age of uncertainty, fragmentation, despair and a dire foreboding about the future. Shared certainties, hopes and dreams have been replaced by shared fears. More troubling is the apprehension that the present crisis has an air of longevity about it, constituting a turning point in history. The stark choice of what the future might look like appears to hang between the forces of despotism and democracy. The pandemic has now revealed in all its ugliness the death-producing mechanisms of systemic inequality, institutional racism, the increasingly dangerous assault on the environment and an anti-intellectual culture that derides any notion of critical education — that is, an education that equips individuals to think critically, engage in thoughtful dialogue, learn the lessons of history and learn how to govern rather than be governed.
The pandemic has torn away the cover of a neoliberal economic system marked by what Thomas Piketty calls “the violence of social inequality.” Inequality is a toxin that destroys lives, democratic institutions, historical consciousness, civic literacy, and is normalized through politicians and a right-wing media culture reduced to sounding boards for the rich and powerful.
The ideological virus-plague has as one of its roots a politics of depoliticization and normalization. It attempts to rob people of their sense of agency all the while making unthinkable the matters of alleged commonsense. Through a variety of market-based assumptions and pedagogical practices, it works to undermine and discredit those ideas, values, modes of identification and desires that enable individuals to become critically engaged actors. As the elevation of profit, greed, and unchecked notions of individualism and self-interests become national ideals, democracy is eviscerated and the habits of citizenship wither.
The pandemic crisis has shattered the myth that each of us are defined exclusively by our self-interest, and as individuals, are solely responsible for the problems we face. Both myths run the risk of breaking down as it becomes obvious that as the pandemic unfolds, shortages in crucial medical equipment, lack of testing, lack of public investments, and failed public health services are largely due to right-wing neoliberal measures such regressive tax policies and bloated military budgets that have drained resources from public health, public goods and other vital social institutions.
COVID-19 has done more than expose the cult of capitalism and its production of social inequities operating on a vast scale in the U.S. and around the globe. It has also revealed the inner workings of an authoritarian politics exemplified by the blundering and dangerous regime of Donald Trump, whose potential reelection the editorial board of The New York Times stated “poses the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II.” According to The Times, Trump degraded the office of the presidency by normalizing the unthinkable, legitimating the inexcusable and defending the indefensible. The administration has been more concerned about the health of the economy than saving lives, especially the lives of those marginalized by color, class, age and preexisting health conditions. For Trump, public relations mattered more than the truth, justice and social responsibility. Trump’s exercise of power was unchecked and untethered to any sense of ethical and political responsibility. Instead, it was used to inflame partisan positions, exploit racial tensions and flagrantly promote a culture of corruption, lawlessness and violence.
Because of Trump’s failure to address the COVID-19 crisis, the United States has been turned into a giant funeral home. Trump lied about the severity of the virus, calling it no more dangerous than the flu, even saying it would just disappear. He admitted to journalist Bob Woodward that the virus was deadly and airborne and that millions of people could get infected, sicken and die. He flouted the advice of experts and put incompetents in positions of power to shape health policies. More recently, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows acknowledged that the Trump administration can’t stop the spread and is focusing instead on getting a vaccine. In other words, in spite of the spiraling number of infections and deaths from the virus in the United States, the White House has made the decision to do nothing but wait for a vaccine. There is more at stake here than incompetence and the collapse of moral responsibility made clear by a public admittance that the U.S. cannot control the pandemic; there is also a criminogenic policy, if not an act of domestic terrorism, that will result in unnecessary massive suffering and deaths particularly among the poor, vulnerable and elderly.
Moreover, as the virus spread throughout the country, Trump disregarded the advice of medical and health authorities and held indoor rallies in cities around the United States, impervious to the danger large group gatherings posed to his followers. After downplaying the virus since its inception while modeling behavior that promotes it, going so far as to treat mask-wearing as a weakness while ridiculing his rival Joe Biden for wearing one, Donald and Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19. For four years, this administration has lied, deceived the public, and undermined the health and safety of the nation. Events have now caught up with Trump’s world of deceit, lies and willful ignorance, and he has to bear the fate of his own hypocrisy and moral failing. What is crucial here is that Trump is not the only the victim of his own inept leadership and the disdain of health experts and the laws of science. More importantly, because of his lack of leadership, the economy tanked, millions lost their jobs, at least 237,000 people have died from COVID-19 and more than 9.5 million are infected. Trump did not deserve this virus, but neither did the people who contracted it because his irresponsible and vicious disregard for the lives of others. Trump has blood on his hands, and his failure to address the pandemic’s reach, severity and danger is no longer an issue he can ignore.
In the aftermath of Biden’s election, there is a need for renewed efforts to put into play policies that raise the minimum wage, support decent and safe work, offer access to affordable housing, provide universal health care, lower prescription drug costs, provide free quality education to everyone, expand infrastructure, defund the police and military, and invest in community services. But such calls do not go far enough, there is also an urgent need to deal with the larger issue of eliminating a hyper-capitalist system structured in massive racial and economic inequalities. The renowned educator David Harvey is right in arguing that the “immediate task is nothing more nor less than the self-conscious construction of a new political framework for approaching the question of inequality [and racism], through a deep and profound critique of our economic and social system.”
As real and foreboding as the current crisis appears, the future does not have to repeat the present, and how it unfolds remains in the balance. If neoliberalism contributed to the unraveling of social connections and the institutions that support them, the pandemic made it clear how vital such connections are to both the public health of a society and its democratic institutions. Young people and others are recognizing that as social spheres are privatized, commercialized and individualized, it becomes difficult to translate private issues into systemic consideration. Under such circumstances, inequality becomes normalized, and the pandemic crisis is isolated from the political, economic, social and cultural conditions that fuel it.
Crucial to any politics of resistance is the necessity to take seriously the notion that education is central to politics itself, and that social problems have to be critically understood before people can act as a force for empowerment and liberation. In the face of the pandemic, matters of criticism, informed judgments and critical modes of understanding are crucial in making a choice between democracy and authoritarianism, life and death.
The stark choice regarding what the future might look like appears to hang between the forces of despotism and democracy. Yet, as ominous as this foreboding appears, history is open, and how it will unfold hangs in the balance. The pandemic is a crisis that cannot be allowed to turn into a catastrophe in which all hope is lost. While this pandemic threatens democracy’s ability to breathe, it should also offer up the possibility to rethink politics and the habits of critical education, human agency and elements of social responsibility crucial to any viable notion of what life would be like in a truly democratic society.
Amid the corpses produced by neoliberal capitalism and COVID-19, there are emerging flashes of hope, especially among young people who seem to be all that stands between a declining faith in democracy and the ghosts of an ugly past. Beyond the normalizing ideologies of a poisonous cynicism and an immobilizing conformity endemic to neoliberal capitalism, there is a growing global movement protesting racism, state violence and economic inequality. This is a collective movement of resistance to a hyper-capitalist system that is out of control; it is a movement in search of a new language that includes investments in education and public health, a living wage, and the creation of an economy that benefits us all and not just a wealthy financial elite. It is a movement that refuses to accept the erosion of democratic ideals, the decline of communal institutions and the rise of a toxic culture of consumerism, greed and self-interest, one that places profit over people. This is a movement attempting to reclaim a collective political vision that is more compassionate, equitable, just and inclusive. Central to its task is the necessity to create a unified democratic political formation, a revival of the civic imagination, and an inspired and energized fight for a radical democracy. This is both a political project and an educational challenge given the need to break through the corrosive commonsense belief that “there is no alternative” to the existing society with its dangerous notions of agency, values and disregard for the common good.
The claims of neoliberal capitalism have been broken and what was once unthinkable is now being said in public by large groups of people. Young people are calling for a new narrative to repair the safety net, provide public investment in health care, child care, elder care and free quality public schools for everyone. Resistance movements in the U.S. are forming in order to protect and expand the voting process, cancel student debt, establish universal health care, expand Social Security, reform the criminal legal system with an eye to ending mass incarceration, protect workers’ rights (including the right to unionize) and a renewed call to support Indigenous rights. There are increasing efforts to address state violence and the plagues of poverty, racism, homelessness, economic inequality and the pollution of the planet. The spirit of an insurgent democracy is in the air.
In spite of the ugly terror of authoritarianism that lurks in the background of the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic can teach us that democracy is fragile as “a way of life” and that if it is to survive, critical education, civic courage, historical consciousness, moral witnessing and political outrage must become central elements of a pedagogical practice capable of producing citizens who are informed, politically aware and willing to struggle to keep justice, equity and the principles of a socialist democracy alive.
A Biden presidency does not point to the end of Trumpism or, more accurately, a toxic form of neoliberal fascism. If the Republican Party has become the party of white supremacy, the Democratic Party as a whole is a party of dead ideas, a funeral home for the decaying corpse of global neoliberal capitalism.
The end of Trump’s presidency does not suggest that the national nightmare has come to an end — it simply means it is no longer at the center of a mode of governance that wears its racism, corporate greed, cruelty, deadly incompetence and authoritarianism like a badge of honor. Trump’s defeat should not erase the notion that the political, economic and cultural forces that created the conditions for his presidency have disappeared.
The struggle ahead will be to expose the forces that made Trump possible and to examine how both political parties participated in putting in place the conditions that enabled his coming to power. It is also crucial to think big and create a civic vision that puts in place a notion of democracy that is truly radical in its call for social justice, broad-based political representation and economic equality. This project is not merely a political task but also an educational necessity. Politics has to be reinvented and rethought and it has to be done through social movements working simultaneously at the local levels and federal and international levels.
We need to act en masse to defend public goods and the welfare state, and to bring about the end of neoliberal capitalism. If a new understanding of politics and social and economic justice and equality is to be born, it is crucial to take seriously waging a war of ideas against the normalization of a dying order. And this task cannot be left to young people alone. While there are signs of a social revival in the U.S., social movements must intensify their efforts to unite and embrace educational tools and programs that provide the knowledge and skills necessary for Americans to be critical, engaged and willing to face down the power of the financial elite and right-wing populist movements.
Democracy cannot survive with its current toxic mix of economic inequality, political corruption and institutionalized racism. We need to understand both how dominant power works in all of its manifestations and how to defeat it. This is not simply an economic issue but also a pedagogical consideration — one in which people learn to think hard, work at the frontiers of the imagination, embody a sense of moral courage and civic imagination, and use the tools of persuasion and the power of beliefs to construct public spaces where civic action can be born.
This is a crisis in which the various protests now evolving internationally at the popular level offer the promise of developing invigorated global movements for the struggle for popular sovereignty and economic, racial and social justice. Central to such struggles is the challenge of making good on the ideals and promise of a substantive democratic order. In the current moment, democracy may be under a severe threat and appear frighteningly vulnerable, but with young people and others rising up across the globe — inspired, energized and marching in the streets — the future of a radical democracy is waiting to be reimagined, if not reborn. In order for democracy to breathe again, it needs to resurrect a language of critique and possibility, one that draws from history, rethinks the meaning of politics, and provides the economic, cultural and political conditions to lift the U.S. and other societies out of the present-day sociopolitical malaise so that the public can envision alternatives and build the institutions necessary for democracy to become a reality. Democracy needs a vision rooted in a deep politics of solidarity that enables people to both fight against the forces of authoritarianism and to overcome them. Angela Davis was right in stating, “We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects, and our many bodies.”
The issue is no longer about who won this election, it is about defeating the political, economic and social conditions that have produced a culture of fear, bear the burden of a fascist past, and promise the consequences of something even worse. It is about whether the last glimmer of a failed democracy will be able to breathe until current and future generations can rescue it.