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Coronavirus lockdown protests expose a far deeper sickness

As the world confronts a historic pandemic, astounding scenes unfold across America. In Denver, a woman berated a health care worker opposing the backlash to Colorado’s public health restrictions. Angry demonstrators challenged a nurse in Phoenix. In Ohio, an iconic photograph of pro-Trump protestors drew apocalyptic comparisons.

While it may be easy to dismiss these protests as a fringe movement, they expose a dark truth: Unlike other industrialized countries, America’s middle class has been decimated over the last forty years.

Rare exceptions aside, anti-quarantine protests are inconceivable in other first-world countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand or South Korea.

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To be sure, protest and civil disobedience have a long, rich history in America. They are woven into our DNA. But the French, for example, out-protest us regularly by mobilizing massive rallies at the drop of a hat.

Americans are also deeply (and rightly) attached to personal liberty and freedom. But our European and Asian peers are just as “free” as we are. Indeed, by some measures, citizens in these countries enjoy far more social and economic freedom than Americans do. Anti-quarantine protests, therefore, cannot simply be chalked up to a backlash against temporary restrictions on personal liberties.

Perhaps most concerning: The other countries to witness such demonstrations are wracked by extreme poverty, staggering inequality and intense political division. America is now in the same league as countries like India, Iraq, Lebanon and Russia, where quarantine-induced economic fears have boiled over into protests.

How did this happen? How did we end up so out of step with our European and Asian contemporaries, yet so closely aligned with third-world countries?

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE undoubtedly bears much of the blame. With the assistance of well-financed right-wing groups, he is inciting demonstrations that contradict his own advice.

The same goes for congressional Republicans. Instead of guaranteeing workers’ salaries (like most of America’s peers), the GOP opposed mandating paid sick leave and resisted strengthening unemployment insurance for workers affected by this historic pandemic. Republican aversion to common-sense assistance amid a national crisis undoubtedly stoked economic uncertainty, fueling many of the anti-lockdown demonstrations.

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But at a far more basic level, why are millions of Americans only one crisis away from economic ruin?

Sobering images of miles upon miles of cars – each representing an American family – lining up at overwhelmed food banks across the country shine a harsh spotlight on this ugly reality. Pandemic or not, such astounding displays of mass poverty are unfathomable in other developed countries. Indeed, this does not happen in “great” nations.

So how did we get here?

For one, our first-world peers have not witnessed anything remotely akin to the Republican Party’s wholesale evisceration of the American middle class. Indeed, Ronald Reagan ushered in an era where corporate bottom lines and shareholder profit took precedence over paying American workers a decent, living wage. The coronavirus is exposing the ugly consequences of 40 years of Reaganism.

In the decades following World War II, Americans’ incomes grew steadily. Well-paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful. The middle class boomed; education was affordable and robust union membership put social mobility within reach for anyone willing to work hard. The rest of the world envied America’s broadly-shared prosperity.

This was also a time when the Republican Party loudly and proudly promoted unions and minimum wage increases as indispensable drivers of economic growth. Yes, you read that correctly.

As unimaginable as it may seem today, pre-Reagan Republicans also boasted about strengthening unemployment benefits, accepting war refugees and protecting Social Security.

Along came the Gipper. And, boy, did America change.

Reagan’s ideology of maximizing profit for corporate management and shareholders ushered in the mass outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs to countries with vast pools of cheap labor. NAFTA, for example, fulfilled Reagan’s free trade “vision.” In much the same vein, Republicans voted nearly unanimously – and with the aid of some Democrats – to export American jobs to China.

Wage and income data reflect the destructive long-term ramifications of Reaganism.

And while unions served as the guardians of the American middle class by ensuring strong wages and social mobility, Reagan unleashed a fiercely anti-union ideology that wrought decades of economic devastation. Quite the pivot for a political party that once proudly embraced unionization.

Thanks to Reaganism, the United States experienced an extreme societal shift in the relatively short span of 40 years. America’s booming, post-war middle class – once the envy of the world – was decimated. Inequality in America has reached staggering levels since 1980, a destructive trend that Trump has been all too eager to super-charge.

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In a particularly stark manifestation of the ideological shift ushered in by Reagan, the United States confronts a catastrophic opioid epidemic. It should come as no surprise that the areas hit hardest by this scourge hemorrhaged well-paying manufacturing jobs in recent decades. The associated increase in mortality rates is an unimaginable phenomenon in a country with America’s enormous wealth and capacity for broadly-dispersed prosperity.

While far less visceral, these realities are on display in the anti-lockdown demonstrations sweeping the United States. Too many Americans face very real economic fears and insecurities.

But the protests are merely a symptom of a deeper and far more insidious ideological sickness plaguing America.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.