For a little while, it looked like everyone understood. Someday the pandemic would end, and when it did, we could not go back to the way things were. To do so would be slow suicide — the equivalent of climate denialism, even. As Venice sinks and the ice caps melt, a sensible person must admit that the age of the Hummer is over. There is no way to save the planet from destruction and consume the way we usually do; there is no way to rebuild a sick country in the image of the past. That country will collapse, if not tomorrow then years from now. We were too inhumane to survive.
America holds a thousand dystopias. It always has, even in better times. In areas of Appalachia, coal operators delivered financial stability at the cost of poisoned lungs and poisoned land. On the southern border, in Alabama’s Black Belt, on our reservations, clean drinking water and reliable plumbing are still sometimes out of reach. In the months before the pandemic, America reached levels of wealth concentration not seen since the 1920s. We already walked on uncertain ground. When the pandemic took hold, it did so in a country where medical bankruptcy and school-lunch debt are real and persistent problems, and it showed us all who we are. Inequality was a crisis before coronavirus, and it has only become more urgent with time.
Urgent but fleeting, an opportunity presented itself. In the earliest days of the virus, the sirens warned of more than death. A new world was upon us, and the birth pangs were terrible. The old order killed hundreds of thousands on its way out: Our health-care system was laughably inadequate for the horrors to come. The scythe fell heaviest among the poor; it swept through Black and brown communities with vigor. The economy cratered, forcing millions, more than half of them women, out of the workforce and into the home.
Nobody could tell, yet, what was to be born. Maybe it would be a monster; maybe it would be something else. Inside the four walls of my apartment I allowed myself a little hope. With the nature of the world still to be determined, momentum finally seemed to favor progress. Welfare was suddenly popular again. “Just give people money,” said everyone, even the most responsibility-minded centrists. What alternative was there, when so many people could no longer work? Universal health care still divides the Democratic Party, but its opponents could not dismiss it so easily, either; not when a mounting national death toll made certain disparities impossible to ignore. Even Donald Trump, no friend to the poor, handed out checks and stopped payments on student loans.
By June, the proof was in. With its expanded unemployment benefits and checks, the CARES Act kept nearly 12 million people out of poverty, the New York Times reported. But problems remained. Child hunger reached levels “unprecedented in modern times,” in the words of one researcher. After the CARES Act, legislators stalled. Republicans did not want to fund more welfare and Trump focused most of his attention on the election, on reopening a country still ravaged by COVID, on himself. Against him ran Joe Biden, a shaky kind of savior who nevertheless promised a $15 minimum wage, $2,000 checks, and maybe even a little health-care reform.
America is far from the socialist haven of my imaginings. Even at my most optimistic, I think I’ll never live to see the country I believe it could become. But that future seemed closer last year, if only because everyone was so angry. On the streets of Brooklyn, for example, so recently the territory of ambulances and hearses, people gathered by the thousands to demand justice for the dead. Not the COVID dead, but for the victims of other American cruelties: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain. There were too many names, names that spanned the country and became their own map. A great void opened up, but what would fill it?
A better world is still possible, but it’s slipping through our fingers. A humane future does not depend entirely or even mostly on various Senate rules. The public has agency, which it may wield to revolutionary effect. The filibuster is undeniably an obstacle, yet senators cling to it anyway. “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?” Senator Joe Manchin yelled at the last reporter who asked him if he’d abolish it. Fear of the filibuster arguably blocked a $15 minimum wage from a new round of stimulus relief. Given time to fester, it may also block policing reform, the expansion of welfare and collective-bargaining rights, and the protection of voting rights — all priorities for most Democrats and anyone who wants to live in a more equitable country. If the White House doesn’t press moderates on the filibuster, on a minimum wage, on a permanent expansion of the child tax credit, on anything in the president’s original platform, Biden will have wasted whatever momentum put it him office. Timidity might satisfy the magical thinking of moderates, but it’s unclear who else the Democratic Establishment is really trying to help.
Moderates like Manchin cling to old ideas in the wake of new terrors. They are so confident that the anger of the summer concerned itself only with Trump. That the removal of Trump would also sate our grief. What they did not understand is that the anger was for everyone in power who’d failed, and that category is almost unimaginably large. Grief is as powerful as rage, and as difficult to placate. In their own way, they are hungers, too, and people can only starve for so long.
The opportunities that revealed themselves amid so much pain and death last spring have now almost vanished. To reduce our circumstances to the most basic and practical terms, we only have a little time before control of the Senate could turn over again. There will be another pandemic, or an earthquake, or a flood. The planet is still warming. What we fail to learn today will haunt us again tomorrow. The incremental ideology of moderates like Manchin are based, ultimately, on a lie: that America does not require much improvement. If we’re ever going to honor the half-million lives the pandemic took, we must begin by telling the truth.
The optimism I once felt for the future has begun to fade, though it hasn’t quite disappeared. The stimulus relief bill will help millions. And the public does want change: better health care, a livable wage, welfare benefits for all, a justice system that actually lives up to the name, a democracy to replace the middling oligarchy. Our mass desire is present in the voting booths, in the uprisings of last summer, in the bold left-wing voices so many voters just sent to Congress. Most of us don’t have the means to abandon optimism, after all. The feeling is not a luxury but a necessity. What can we do except believe a different world could exist? That we’ll find a way to honor the half-million dead, and translate pain into empathy? Springtime is back, but the sirens are quiet. There are opportunities still, and we can rescue them if we try.