I: The American Reality
America was founded on a dream. It was a dream that all people, from all the war-torn and disease-ridden corners of the earth, could come to this new-age Promised Land and build a common future side-by-side. It was half history, and half mythology, but whatever it was, it was the inspiration for everything that would later evolve into the America we know today.
America, the Dream, has been in constant conflict with America, the Reality. In the 1700s, our Congress failed to abolish slavery, and allowed it to continue in the name of national unity. In the 1800s, we allowed enormous monopolies to swallow up most of our national wealth, and in the Civil War we faced a challenge that threatened to divide the states into separate sovereign nations. We survived, in that century, the worst Presidency in our national history. The 1900s fared no better, with two world wars, one plague, several genocides, and then a powerful nationwide economic boon which culminated, yet again, in a few powerful monopolies swallowing up most of our wealth.
Today that Dream is yet again in conflict with our Reality. Our Reality looks like this:
In the midst of an unemployment crisis unlike anything we have ever seen before, we have neither an effective welfare safety net nor any political party in Congress interested in creating one. Americans are left to continue paying rent and utilities while receiving no income. Very few Americans are eligible for unemployment (even the poorest and most vulnerable are usually ineligible) and those who are still won’t receive help for weeks or months.
A one-time relief check likely will arrive too late to save the millions of Americans who needed immediate help two weeks ago. Already prior to this crisis, 20% of Americans had “zero or negative wealth”, half of Americans owed more in debts than they held in assets, and an incredible 78% of Americans could not survive the loss of one single paycheck, having less than five hundred dollars in total savings.
Faced with the specter of small businesses closing up shop and declaring bankruptcy all over the country, Congress has entrusted the Small Business Administration to roll out an emergency loans program. This program has not yet gone into effect, and when it finally does, loans will take several additional months to process beyond their application date. Most businesses will be declined. Those who are approved are unlikely to receive any funding for at least another three months. Help will arrive too late and accomplish too little to save almost any local business in America.
In an age of global pandemic, healthcare is the leading cause of bankruptcy for Americans, sometimes accounting for as many as 62% of all bankruptcies nationwide in any given year. Americans are already dying from COVID-19 because they have no insurance or refusing hospital treatment because of coronavirus expenses. 44,000,000 Americans have no health insurance, and an additional 38,000,000 are dangerously underinsured. The United States is terrifyingly short on everything from masks and tests and advanced hospital machinery. At the expense of more than one million American lives, the President and his followers are demanding that the United States re-open its economy several weeks earlier than recommended, paying no real attention to the health of most Americans.
In a country with six vacant homes for every homeless person, it typically takes three months to get into a shelter, during which time many homeless people die or go insane. This is the emergency housing system as it exists without millions of Americans losing their homes, unwilling to accommodate even the 600,000 Americans who are homeless on the average night.
Now, after only two weeks of no wages, millions of Americans are so destitute that the global economy is again at risk of collapse in April, as rent comes due. We are likely to see this scenario repeat, yet again, as April turns to May. As these systems fail and collapse, the healthcare, housing, and employment systems will also fail.
In a time of unprecedented crisis, Americans face a complete lack of executive federal leadership, such that State Governors are left competing not only against one another, but also against foreign nations to purchase life-saving medical equipment, a battle they lose too often. While Governor Cuomo has begged for the President to take some initiative responding to the crisis, the President consistently chooses not to help, and says the governors “need to be nicer” to him if they want any help saving lives in the future.
The President of the United States has even taken this opportunity to dismantle what he can of the U.S. Constitution. Over the span of only a few days, the rule of supreme constitutional law has evaporated. The President has threatened to revoke TV licenses from news stations that air an anti-Trump ad, asked the Department of Justice to suspend habeus corpus, and ordered U.S. States to begin censoring information regarding unemployment and the economy, making this information inaccessible to journalists and the American public. He’s allowing conservative states to shut down abortion clinics without authorization, using the virus as an excuse. He is also expected to make a case to cancel or postpone the November election, citing public health emergency as his rationale.
It is beyond time to put the mythology behind us. America, the Reality, was already a declining state prior to this crisis. Now, it is fast becoming a failed state.
These are exactly the times when America, the Dream, matters most of all.
II: The American Dream
By necessity, Americans everywhere around the country have started coming together to form “mutual aid groups”, where they share food, shelter, clothing, direct cash, medical supplies, free services, and so on. Without any effective government to provide these bare necessities for them, they have started to build a new informal government for themselves.
Everywhere around America, these groups are building new apps, new websites, and founding new communities to share resources even in quarantine—everything from food and basic shelter up to free legal representation. In two short weeks, in my city alone, we have connected twelve thousand citizens—farmers who hand out their produce, store owners who donate free clothing, lawyers who argue cases pro bono, homeowners who have one or two spare rooms, and business professionals who write off 100% of their services just to make sure that their neighbors don’t go bankrupt.
None of us charge anything to anyone. Our whole economy exists without money. We understand that the nation and its economy have failed. In the light of this failure, we have come together to be there for each other in a time of crisis, and have unintentionally created a new, informal government.
America, the Dream, still exists. It is everywhere around us. It is in our neighbors and ourselves. We did not know that it is still here until we faced such a crisis. We have been up to the challenge before, and we must be up to it again. This is what happens as every state fails—and if we want to grow a new successful state, we would do well to focus on the growth and early governance of these groups. Wherever America, the Reality, becomes a failed state, America, the Dream, sees an opportunity to flourish.
III: Building the New America
Change comes from chaos, and the present moment is nothing if not chaos incarnate. The overnight collapse of our economy has also wrought the overnight collapse of our political spectrum—and in this area, too, we must press forward with the American Dream.
The rapid progression of crises and events has caused that political spectrum to disappear entirely, and suddenly we are tasked with setting the boundaries and building the content of a totally new political reality. Mitt Romney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez teamed up to argue for a Universal Basic Income program. Rep. Tlaib introduced a MMT-inspired UBI program that guarantees a living wage for all Americans. Democrats passed an enormous unemployment expansion package, while Republicans set up a bottomless corporate spending fund with no legislative or judicial oversight.
A few weeks ago, any of these items would be have been unthinkable to discuss, and now some of them already exist. Andrew Yang, in one week’s time, went from being a fiery far-left anarcho-communist to a boring centrist technocrat—without changing a single one of his views.
In this chaos, we have a truly unique opportunity to advance the Dream against the Reality. There are no longer any limits on what we can or cannot discuss within the world of politics. We are left with an important task: To define the limits and the content of a new political spectrum for a New America.
On the progressive side, centrist liberals believe in a massive expansion of unemployment, which will include large groups of previously ineligible American workers—gig workers, freelancers, solo entrepreneurs, part-time workers, seasonal workers, and others. Progressives, meanwhile, maintain that unemployment and housing assistance programs are politicized and broken beyond repair, and the only fix is a universal basic income—an argument that centrist Republicans suddenly find themselves agreeing with.
On the far-right side, we are seeing this horrendous argument circulating among right-wing politicians, journalists, pundits, and officials, that we should sacrifice millions of American lives in order to re-open the economy a few weeks earlier than recommended. This is an argument tantamount to genocide, which could easily result in more than one million deaths here in the United States. Yet March has not even ended, and the argument has already begun circulating in major national newspapers and TV news shows.
We are now in a dangerous, unmapped part of a nascent political world. We have begun the process of defining what our new limits are, and what we want the future of this country to look like. It is exciting that we are able to define these new limits, but it is a dangerous responsibility. If we fail to immediately and forcefully discredit such violent ideas as “genocide for the stock market”, then these ideas will have a terrible influence on how our new political worldviews are framed.
Right away, we should collaborate on a set of commons goals as we begin building the New America. These goals will frame how we approach the project and what issues we discuss first. We need to identify where we can move the dialogue forward, and we need to do it fast, building on the momentum of this chaos—future Americans will depend on what progress we make today.
We should include everyone in that discussion, including so many millions of people previously excluded from economic rights and political dialogue: Seasonal employees, solo entrepreneurs and small business owners, part-time workers, gig-economy freelancers, non-profits and NPO/NGO entrepreneurs, unemployed persons, most Millennials, and so on.
In the old America, millions of people were left out in the cold, on the streets and in the fields, rural and urban alike—in this age, we have the knowledge, technology, and civility to build an inclusive New America where no one is left out. Our first task, before we even begin deliberations, is to draw together this diverse Estates-General from all corners of the nation.
We begin this task today, but it will likely lead to long, difficult months of disagreement and debate. In the meantime, we need to care for each other and for our communities. Our first operational commitments should be the growth, scaling up, and central oversight of the mutual aid groups, volunteer networks, and informal charities that have already saved the lives of so many Americans in the aftermath of national state failure.
Americans everywhere will continue to need their neighbors. The efficient, informal, life-saving networks we build in our communities today might become the foundation of a larger government we build tomorrow.
This task requires every citizen to step forward and assume a level of civic responsibility and community ownership that most Americans have never had to shoulder before. If these groups do not exist where you are, then start one yourself. More people are counting on you than you realize.
America, the Dream, has always been fighting for its life. It is a utopia we labor towards, and by its nature is unreachable. But it has never been more important to Dream against Reality than it is in this moment, when we share this one opportunity to build the New America.
Matthew R. Bishop is an author, journalist, and two-tour federal crisis responder for the United States, specializing in post-disaster local economic recovery. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.