American Seismographies

Photograph Source: Beth Rankin – CC BY 2.0

While no one can hope to emulate the late Alex Cockburn’s inimitable observations regarding America and Americana on his long road trips across the country, a similar journey today may yield insights into these emerging Bidenian times.

That is, the somewhat inchoate times of “Sleepy Joe”, the nature of which is still in the course of being determined, as Biden and his team gauge which parts of the Bernie Sanders’ agenda can be cannibalized while still keeping neoliberalism safe.

This seems to be the underlying context of this emerging Bidenism—he is not fashioning an updated facsimile of the New Deal, at least not yet, but the Covid pandemic has impelled a level of state intervention, both social and economic, that was unthinkable even in the Obama years—not that Obama set a high bar when it came to putting neoliberalism on a leash.

The few attempts to introduce neoliberal “free market” solutions in dealing with the Covid crisis, outside the US admittedly, have turned out to be calamitous.

In the UK, the Tory government’s attempt to bypass the NHS and use the private sector in PPE procurement and test and trace has been an unqualified disaster, as rampant racketeering and cronyism manifested themselves at every turn. To quote from an article by Patrick Cockburn:

Describing the atmosphere in 10 Downing Street last summer, Sir Jeremy Farrar, the infectious disease expert who heads the Wellcome Trust, speaks of a government “vulnerable to what looked like racketeering”. When he sat down at a meeting chaired by Boris Johnson, he was struck by the presence of snake oil salesmen looking for contracts for Covid-19 rapid testing that everyone knew was useless.

‘It sometimes felt,’ he writes in his memoir Spike, ‘as if I had strayed on a set for The Third Man, that fantastic Carol Reed film of a Graham Greene novel, which features a black market for penicillin’.

It is not just the pandemic that has precipitated this as yet lumbering increase in US government intervention.

The Biden administration’s seeming resolve to pay more than lip service to addressing global heating, and the need to deal with the US’s outdated infrastructure, are additional contributing factors.

Our 1100-mile journey from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia to Houston, spread over 3 days each way, took us though Republican-controlled states—Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (though Louisiana has a governor who is a Democrat)—with some of the lowest fully-vaccinated rates in the US (39.6%, 34.8% (the lowest in the country), 35.2% (the second lowest in the country), and 37.6% respectively; compared to my home state Virginia at 55.2%).

Alabama has had to discard 65,511 expired doses of the vaccine as a result of a low vaccine uptake.

Mississippi, with a 2021 population of 2,966,407, versus Virginia’s 8,603,985, has 7,621 confirmed Covid deaths, versus Virginia’s 11,558. In numerous counties in Mississippi, less than a third of the population has received one dose of the vaccine. Mississippi health officials said last Wednesday that there were only 6 ICU beds available in the entire state as a result of the surge in Covid cases.

These discrepancies have a lot to do with the low levels of healthcare in the South, but cavalier state-government management of the pandemic (pivoting on the “freedom of choice” mantra) has been largely instrumental.

Since cases of the Delta variant were rising, and we were visiting elderly relatives, we took care to stay in hotels in college towns, taking our cue from the well-documented correlation between education levels and vaccination rates, albeit more in a spirit of hope than expectation on our part.

The other established correlation is between low vaccination rates and Trump-voting states, and all the states on our journey voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Almost 60% of Republicans say they are not willing to get vaccinated, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,517 US adults published last month.

In addition, we ate outdoors or in our hotel rooms all the way.

While it is easy to be condescending towards the US South, the Covid outbreak at Provincetown on Cape Cod at a Fourth of July celebration showed the contours of the pandemic to be somewhat jagged.

Massachusetts is a leader in vaccinations, with more than 64% of its population fully vaccinated. The Provincetown outbreak, linked to a party at a waterfront hotel, involved more than 1,000 people. A CDC study found that while about three-fourths of those who were infected were vaccinated, there were few hospitalizations and no deaths.

It is clear, therefore, that vaccinations do not guarantee immunity from Covid infection, their obvious benefits notwithstanding.

On our road trip we were the only people wearing masks just about everywhere.

As we travelled, Covid cases in the US were starting to jump to more than 100,000 a day on average, returning to the levels of the winter surge 6 months ago.

The Republican governors and state assemblies in the South are however much more interested in stopping black people from voting than in managing the pandemic.

While we were in Houston, 50 Democratic state lawmakers fled Texas for Washington DC in a protest against voter suppression laws, and to prevent a Republican-backed “voter integrity” bill from passing in a special legislative session, which lacked a quorum as a result of their absence.

The lawmakers are still taking cover in Washington, and Texas governor Greg Abbott has called for their arrests.

Texas currently ranks second behind Florida for the highest daily average Covid cases, with infections up 134% in the last 14 days. Between the beginning of February and mid-July, approximately 99.5% of Texans who died from the virus were unvaccinated, according to a Texas Tribune report.

Abbott is facing a contested primary for the 2022 gubernatorial election. His opponent, Allen West, has, unbelievably, found a way to carve-out out an ideological space even further to Abbott’s right.

West, retired from the military and chair of the Texas Republican party, is a venomous Islamophobe, known for his description of Obama as a “low-level Socialist agitator” (one would wish!), and his bizarre claim that 81 Democratic members of Congress were members of the Communist Party (again one could only wish).

Abbott is trying to shut the door on West by flaunting his own right-wing credentials, and his voter-suppression antics are part of this effort.

But there could be a spanner in the works for Abbott and West.

Mainly as a result of a population movement into Texas from the increasingly unaffordable and conflagration-wracked US west coast, the population of Texas has increased by 15% since 2010.

Political commentators say this population shift into Texas from less rightwing parts of the US is helping turn Texas, gradually, into a purple state.

We shall see.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.