Wednesday, October 21, 2020


“I feel great. I feel, like, perfect. I think this was a blessing from God, that I caught it. This was a blessing in disguise.”
 —President Trump on his having contracted Covid‑19, October 7

“I just think is God’s gift to the left.”
 —Actor/activist Jane Fonda, during a Working Families Party online event, October 2
Sometimes it is worthwhile to look back and recall what was happening a hundred years ago.

As it happens, in 1920 the world was enduring the fourth wave of a pandemic. The first wave of the so-called Spanish Flu had occurred in 1918. Also, in 1920 Russia was midway through a bloody civil war. The two things may or may not be unrelated.

At the beginning of the current year, a lot of political analysts opined that President Trump was sailing toward an easy reelection on the strength of the U.S.’s strong financial numbers. These days, however, because of the Covid‑19 pandemic and its effect on the economy, the smart betting is that he will lose to Joe Biden. Did something similar happen with the 1918-1920 pandemic?

Cause and effect are always tricky to prove, but some historians suggest that the flu’s scourge did have a political effect. Europe was already reeling from a devastating four-year war when the pandemic began. In her 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, author/journalist Laura Spinney suggests the flu “fanned the flames that had been smoldering since before the Russian revolutions of 1917 … illuminating the injustice of colonialism and sometimes of capitalism too.”

No doubt it was one more factor in the deteriorating post-war situation in Germany, which would eventually lead to a second world war. On the more constructive side, the ravages of the disease prompted citizens of democracies to press for better healthcare systems, a struggle that continues to this day.

Did the Spanish flu really fan the flames of activism, progressivism and radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s? More to the point, is the current pandemic having that effect in our own time? It is arguable whether the prospective election of Biden would necessarily signal a major leftward shift in the American electorate. After all, Democratic primary voters—and more importantly Dem party leaders—seem to have settled on him precisely because, compared to younger Democratic politicians, he looks downright moderate and not scary to most voters. If he wins, it will clearly be a rejection of the incumbent rather than a ringing endorsement of anything voters heard in the primary debates.

Still it cannot be ignored that the Democratic Party, which is by all measures (except perhaps the Electoral College) is the largest of all U.S. political parties, has moved decidedly leftward in the 21st century. A Democratic President and Congress will certainly come under pressure from progressive factions in terms of the economy, social issues and climate change. Republicans would have you believe that the country will go full-blown socialist if Biden is elected and particularly if Democrats also take the Senate.

Experience suggests that is unlikely. The Democratic leadership can use all the right woke buzzwords, but once the party is in control of government they can act pretty darn moderate, usually contorting themselves in blaming the Republican opposition for a lack of results. Remember the 111th Congress (2009-2011) when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress? They got through Obamacare—not even the single-payer system progressives had long fought for—and what else? Climate change? President Obama signed a treaty in Paris but then never submitted it for approval to the Democratic-controlled Senate because it was certain to fail. The party’s reward for its one accomplishment, healthcare reform, was a rout in the 2010 midterm elections.

But maybe things are different now? There’s a new generation of voters. There’s better education. People are more politically active. Young people are finally really engaged. The problem is that these are all things we’ve heard during every election since 1968. We’ll find out after November 3 whether things have really changed that much.

More worrying is how activist progressives will react if their political victory falls short of their ideals. Republicans know how that turns out. Four years ago the party saw many of its usual voters give up on the old establishment types and go for a populist firebrand. Will progressives do something similar if they also decide the system is rigged against them?

Here’s something to chew on. The Times of London reported the other day that a survey of nearly five million people found that those born between 1981 and 1996 had less faith in democratic institutions than previous generations. “The collapse of confidence,” said the paper, “is particularly pronounced in the ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies’ of Britain, the United States and Australia. However, similar trends are seen in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe.”

The study was conducted by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University. Roberto Foa, its lead author, said, “This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties.”

“In western democracies,” reported The Times, “41 per cent of millennials agree that you can ‘tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics,’ compared with 30 per cent of voters over the age of 35.”

Added Dr. Foa, “The prevalence of polarizing attitudes among millennials may mean advanced democracies remain fertile ground for populist politics.”

One-hundred years ago next month, the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Vladimir Lenin, addressed the Conference of Political Education Workers. He declared, “Each man must choose between joining our side or the other side. Any attempt to avoid taking sides must end in fiasco.”

A century later his words echo strong and clear.

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