If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.
The prologue of our book, United States of Distraction, begins with that epigraph, and it is quite fitting for our times. Much like we argued then about understanding Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the only proper way to comprehend and address the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic is to look at how we got here—through a spate of neoliberal policies that put profits over people for decades. No doubt, we are sickened by the fear and suffering this current pandemic has wrought. However, where commentators and critics are invested in a short-term blame game, we are more concerned with developing solutions to the current challenges we face, and to build on those systemically, making it less likely we have to confront such a crisis in the future. Part of that requires assessing our historical responsibilities, where we must address the failure of the neoliberal experiment over the past half century that has brought us to where we are today.
In our current situation, it is true that the U.S. Government wasted months before responding and as early as 2018 fired a group of experts positioned to deal with pandemics: the US Pandemic Response Team. However, to focus on these actions alone, placing blame only on the current administration, is to miss the forest for the trees. It is our contention that since the late 1960s, the rise of the neoliberal regime helped shape what would become America’s tepid and anemic response to COVID-19.
During this current health crisis, we need experts to mobilize the public and private sector in meaningful and informed ways. Unfortunately, the current administration is sorely lacking in expert leadership, for the most part. However, that is not the only problem, as the Tom Nichols describes in The Death of Expertise. Americans in general have become comfortable in their belief that they know as much, maybe even more, than the intellectual class on key public affairs. Much of this hubris comes from how it has become commonplace to be asked to evaluate or review our experience at a restaurant, institutions, or with a professional in online and social media formats. Many now conflate their ability to evaluate a topic or experience with having actual expertise about it (part of our post-truth conundrum). This manifests itself in small interactions, especially online, where students or clients lecture professionals in education and medicine on how to best do their jobs. In broader ways it is seen in how the masses judge candidates by personality, who they would have a beer with, rather than choosing someone with the intellect and skills to institute policies needed to serve the public good. In many ways, we have become a Dunning-Kruger society.
We actually need expertise in our society, especially in science. On a micro-level, and quite specifically, we need a scientifically literate public that can understand the ways in which their behavior can spread and worsen the virus. On a macro-level, we need a robust scientific community, one that is well-funded and poised to take on any challenge. However, in recent decades, scientific findings have been undermined or ignored because of propaganda and pressure from evangelicals defending their dogmatic beliefs on one end and corporations protecting their profits while infecting government through regulatory capture on another. This helps shape an anti-science culture, one that supports administrations that defund scientific education and research (most recently in 2019), ban stem cell research (2001), and dismiss or diminish science curriculum in schools. The result is a scientifically illiterate electorate, one that has made the U.S. the only wealthy industrialized nation with a political party that actively denies our climate crisis. Further, scientific experimentation and clinical trials take time and much of it does not result in immediately useful information, but along the way, such gradual discoveries enable the betterment and extension of human life for many. In short, it is well worth it to not only appreciate science and its methodology, which includes debate and dissent, but to adequately promote and fund it transparently in the public interest, not for private profit.
Since the 1970s, neoliberals have sought to convince us to let private industry control our needs because they viewed collectivism as an assault on freedom. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed that:
“there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.”
This ideology ushered in an era of dismantling the commons while promoting a radical individualism that was more akin to extreme isolationism, now exhibited by people burying themselves in their phones while conflating such with activism and building community.
It may also be worth reminding ourselves that Joseph de Maistre, an 18th and 19th century lawyer and diplomat, contended that “every nation gets the government it deserves.” Indeed, the decades of claims that government does not work or cannot get things done, the very mantra of Reaganism, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” has turned into a self-filling prophecy. Enough American voters routinely support politicians that deride government as ineffectual, who then take office to prove that maxim. The results have included a government that could not protect the citizenry on 9/11; anticipate or mitigate the 2008 recession and its fallout; or address the threat of COVID-19 with adequate testing, supplies, and treatment. We need people in government who believe the overall mission is to serve the public, not themselves or their special monied interests. We need government to be a collective force that addresses the needs of the people, especially in this time of crisis.
In support of such a government, we also need to reformulate the way we look at taxes. Neoliberalism casts taxes as a cost, but taxes are an investment. Often people do not realize that they need to investment in something until it is too late. An investment in education and medical care has the potential to engender the research and preparation needed in a time of crisis. As Bernie Sanders’ campaign noted, if Americans could do simple math, they would understand that a hike in taxes of a few dollars would be less costly than medical insurance, and unlike the current system, it would actually cover all citizens. These grand plans may seem unnecessary to many– until they are. For example, support for Andrew Yang’s Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposal received a chuckle from neoliberals and conservatives alike, but in the midst of COVID-19, these same people are now proposing a form of UBI. The wealthy can laugh because when crisis hits they often have more resources to weather it, but most of us, especially the poor and working classes, do not.
It is time to shed the legacy and influence of neoliberal ideology on markets and democratic institutions. The invisible hand of the market does not solve problems, in fact, its invisibility is oft what furthers inequality. If one needs confirmation, check with those facing poverty and death in the wake of COVID-19. No invisible hand is helping them, rather, an invisible virus is threatening to kill them, one our president initially ignored and downplayed despite multiple early warnings. The medical industry in the U.S., including the insurance companies (which combined are more of a disease management system than a healthcare system), are poised to make profits in normal times, but have proven to be grossly under-prepared for a healthcare emergency (such as COVID- 19), which is precisely the moment when something like Medicare for All is desperately needed. This was known, as even a Department of Health and Human Services study projected the impact of a pandemic in the U.S. just last year, predicting how such a lack of preparedness would have dire consequences. That, too, was ignored for more business as usual, which brings us to where are today.
We should heed the warnings of Lao Tzu. We have been heading here for some time. Trump and his administration may be more responsible than those that preceded them for the current coronavirus issue, but all blame does not lie at their feet. Similarly, the voters of today are as responsible as those that preceded them. America needs a fundamental shift in civic behavior and attitude if it intends to address issues such as COVID-19 with any maturity or effectiveness. We must be adults and defer to experts when it is prudent; consider the validity of transparently sourced scientific findings regardless of personal beliefs; support and maintain our power through the commons of public institutions such that we can act swiftly and decisively to protect ourselves and others; and we need to ensure the wealthiest in society, including corporations, pay their fair share of taxes to invest in our collective future, not bolster mass military mobilization around the world. We need to revitalize the physical and intellectual infrastructure of our society and our country. Indeed, we need to change direction, or else we will end up where we have been heading. Are we there yet?
Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author and lecturer of history and media studies at California State University, East Bay. Higdon sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education and Northwest Alliance for Alternative Media and Education. His most recent publication is United States of Distraction with Mickey Huff. He is co-host of the “Along the Line” podcast, and a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. In addition, he has been a guest commentator for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and numerous television news outlets.
Mickey Huff is the director of Project Censored, president of the Media Freedom Foundation, co-editor of the annual Censored book series from Seven Stories Press (since 2009), co-author of United States of Distraction(City Lights, 2019), and professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College where he co-chairs the history area and journalism program, and lectures in communications at California State University, East Bay. He is also the executive producer and co-host of the weekly syndicated Pacifica Radio program, “The Project Censored Show,” founded in 2010. Learn more at www.projectcensored.org.