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From Riots to Reform in America


Mass protests and rioting following the killing of yet another African-American by a white police officer have compounded multiplying crises in the United States. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, a looming economic depression, and persistent racism, the American social contract has never been in more need of reform.

MEXICO CITY – The wave of anger and indignation sweeping the United States in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman exposes the myriad contradictions of American society. With a presidential election less than six months away, the US is gripped by despair and violent polarization. Yet if one looks through the triple crisis of COVID-19, economic depression, and mass protests and rioting, one can glimpse enormous potential opportunities.

As I show in my new book, America Through Foreign Eyes, since the US ceased to be a middle-class society, starting in the early 1980s, it has been incapable of thriving. Without a full-fledged welfare state, it has consistently failed to adapt to a fundamental shift in its founding paradigm. Its Athenian-inspired political system was built for a society that treated everyone within the circle of enfranchisement as roughly equal, while excluding many others whom it deemed “less equal” (to borrow from George Orwell’s biting description of Bolshevism). The out-groups included women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and many others.

As a result of these founding conditions, the US political system has long proved ill-equipped to retool its safety net, let alone its broader social contract. To take the most recent example, consider then-President Barack Obama’s attempts to fix the US’ deeply flawed and dysfunctional health-care system. Though the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, it contained many loopholes and half-measures, and has since been systematically undermined by Donald Trump’s administration.

Race is a central flashpoint in America’s political evolution. Racial disparities have always underscored why the social contract needs to be expanded to beyond the fully employed white males of yesteryear. But the persistence of these disparities indicates that there are immense hurdles standing in the way of change. Trump’s cynical effort to stoke racial resentment in response to the current protests is emblematic of the deeper problem. But so, too, was the Democratic Party’s primary, which quickly winnowed out all candidates of color.

Race is a key factor not just in demands for reparations for slavery, but also in debates about universal health insurance and childcare, tuition-free public higher education, the minimum wage, immigration, gun control, and Electoral College reform. All of these issues touch on the fundamental question at the heart of America’s political identity: Can the country’s original sin (slavery, followed by Jim Crow) be expiated without a proper welfare state?

The outpouring of frustration and anger following Floyd’s death has once again brought these questions into sharper focus. Over the past year, polls have consistently shown that Americans support proposals to expand the safety net, tighten gun control, and provide tuition-free college. The public also increasingly accepts the idea that African-Americans continue to bear the costs of systemic racism, from red-lining of neighborhoods and workplace discrimination to mass incarceration and abuse at the hands of police. The current explosion of rage will solidify these shifts in sentiment, whatever the electoral consequences.

The same is true of the COVID-19 pandemic and the broader economic collapse. The racial and socioeconomic disparities revealed by both crises have led political leaders, experts, and commentators from left to moderate right to agree that America’s safety net is in tatters.

From insufficient testing and inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment to the disproportionately higher mortality rate among African-Americans, the pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses of the US health-care system. And at the same time, the economic debacle has highlighted the shortcomings of US unemployment insurance and other social programs, as well as a lack of coordination between federal, state, and local governments. Just as the pandemic has demonstrated the efficiency of the German, Scandinavian, and even French safety nets, it has exposed the gaping holes in the US system.

Owing to the triple crisis posed by the pandemic, depression, and civil unrest, there is a growing awareness among Democrats that beating Trump in November will not be enough. The focus groups that Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, has set up, and his campaign’s ongoing discussions with potential running mates, all point to a realization that the crisis is even deeper than originally anticipated, and will require radical change.Sign up to our Weekly Newsletter

Biden may not be the ideal candidate to mobilize and excite young black and Hispanic voters, but he is certainly capable of leading the kind of coalition needed to defeat Trump and launch a New Deal-like overhaul of US social, economic, and political structures. Americans may not want “socialism,” but they will no longer be content with a “return to normalcy” (Biden’s primary-season slogan, which he will now have to discard).

Winston Churchill’s aphorism about not letting a good crisis go to waste is relevant once again. With the COVID-19 death toll above 100,000, 40 million unemployed, and another black man killed by a white cop, America’s crises are multiplying. For now, the country is beset not just by protests and rioting over police abuses, but also by a resurgent white-supremacist “alt-right.” The underlying crises will come to a head politically on Election Day. Not since 1932 has America been more in need of radical change and sound leadership than it is today.

Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is a professor at New York University and author of the forthcoming America Through Foreign Eyes.

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