America at the Crossroads

Why would a country founded on the Idea of Progress want to go “back to normal”?  We tried that once when Warren G. Harding was elected President on a platform touting normalcy (he invented the word) and it sent us back to the excesses of the Gilded Age which, in turn, led to the Great Depression of the 1930s and all its attendant suffering. In 1932, an overwhelming majority of voters decided they’d had enough of normalcy and voted in Franklin D. Roosevelt who pledged a New Deal for the American people. It was history at the crossroads, one of those inflection points when we have the opportunity to learn from our experiences and use them to build a better future.

Coronavirus brings us to another of those crossroads. Which road will we take? We could retreat again to the outdated policies and decisions of the past several years without recognizing how they set us up for a pandemic that is worse than it might have been. Or we could take stock of the unpreparedness that paved the way for this scourge and avoid what will surely be more, and perhaps even worse, plagues ahead.

It was more than being caught off-guard by an unexpected thunderbolt. Epidemics and pandemics are staples of history, and many experts understood that the twenty-first century has no immunity from them. Yet we have seen huge cut-backs in government support for science and health research, and our pharmaceutical industry’s record in developing new vaccines over the past couple of decades has been woefully wanting. We have stockpiled military gear for every imaginable contingency, but stockpiling PPEs, ventilators, and other essential medical equipment was shunted to the bottom of the list—if it made anyone’s list to begin with. We have talked about the costs of healthcare but not enough about the cost in human lives. We have allowed our hospital “systems” to morph into a disconnected and confusing morass wherein coordination is most often the exception and seldom the rule. And, worst of all, we have made decent medical care unattainable for millions of our fellow citizens.

A number of states are doing their best to react, albeit belatedly, and they deserve great credit. But federal financial assistance has been very much a mixed bag. While some relief is getting through to people who have no food, no money, and no healthcare, big business has lobbied for—and gotten—a ridiculously large chunk of the aid money.  Powerful corporate lobbyists and lawyers made sure there would be precious little monitoring of where the aid money went, and it’s a certainty that many of those dollars that could be helping the afflicted are instead enriching the affluent. Look for a lot of stock buy-backs and shareholder enrichment in the months ahead, and watch big business gobble up much of the assistance intended for small businesses (if that really was what Congress actually intended!).

Apart from the human suffering, perhaps the worst outcome of our current travail is witnessing a healthcare crisis reduced to a political weapon as if the enemy is not the coronavirus, but the other party. Is the virus a tool of the left to derail making America great again or a scheme of the right to keep socialism at bay?  Some cry “hoax” even while cities scramble for trucks to haul away the bodies of the dead. How far we have sunk. I used to teach U.S. History, and I cannot recall a presidential statement more shocking than that recent tweet encouraging those protesting in favor of reopening Virginia to be ever-mindful of their Second Amendment gun rights. I am still in shock.

This crossroads demands more of us. We have a critical election just months away. Making sure we talk about real issues is of course vital. More of that in a moment. But we are far away from having the procedures and mechanics in place to conduct the election itself. How can we guarantee a credible election? What about safe polling places? How do we ensure that all citizens can vote by mail? How will we stop the machinations going on in many states to suppress voting, to kick citizens off the registration rolls, and to eliminate hundreds of polling places? Make no mistake—efforts are well advanced to undermine the 2020 elections. Congress seems in no mood to provide adequate help, and some courts are actually encouraging instead of eliminating these democracy-killing schemes. It should go without saying that nothing is so necessary for democracy as free and open elections; sadly, it is necessary now to warn that we are playing fast and loose with the core element of representative government. Today’s electoral process is a travesty.

The coronavirus, for all its curses, clarifies many of the issues we meet at the crossroads. One is the role of government itself. I found it interesting that once the virus’ threat became clear, people looked for a system that worked better together. They looked to government for leadership and for coordinating industry, labor, and all of us to meet the challenge. And they looked to business to shift gears to produce the tools we needed to get the job done. Interesting, yes; surprising, not really.  After all, that kind of partnership is how we grew the nation, built our infrastructure, and created social safety programs to ensure that our most vulnerable communities were not left behind. There were stops and starts, to be sure, but this was the foundation that actually built America. We have strayed far from that course with all the “we versus they” partisanship of recent decades, fueled by the corrupting influence of big money, too-powerful financial and corporate interests, gerrymandered Congressional districting, courts stuck in the jurisprudence of the horse-and-buggy days, and captured Congresses incapable of coming together for the common good. It is not a time for more pulling apart; it is a time for pulling together. A majority of Americans are seeing the need. They are pulling together against the coronavirus. They are making serious sacrifices for the common good.  Now the need is to apply this lesson to the many other challenges that beset us.

The economy that is coming will be very different from the economy that was. We already knew the role technology would play in this transformation, although there are many more questions about its role than there are answers. But now there are complicating new realities. Bricks and mortar businesses face daunting obstacles to rebuild. Many of them will likely, and sadly, fail. How do we promote online entrepreneurship in this changed environment? How do we restore the businesses that we can and open new doors for those we cannot? What about labor? Near-record numbers of workers are without jobs. Some will not have employers to whom they can return. Others will find they have been replaced by independent contract workers, shorthand for jobs with no benefits or guarantees. There were promising signs of union organizing even before the virus struck. These efforts deserve a helping hand.

My beat is communications, so a few words about media. There is plenty to praise in the coverage of the coronavirus contagion, so praise that I do. But every day brings news of more fired journalists and newsroom cut-backs, costing us dearly. These reductions long preceded the pandemic and result in large part from unrelenting media industry ownership consolidation over recent years. Placing a moratorium on rubber-stamping media mergers for at least the duration of the pandemic would help preserve newsroom jobs.

Communities across the nation depend upon reporting that is both wide and deep, but each lost reporter deprives citizens of information that we urgently need, and each expands the opportunity for a misinformation contagion to spread alongside the virus. We need more, not less, news. For starters, perhaps those half-hour evening network news broadcasts should be extended to a full hour, allowing coverage of the many other events transforming our world. There is a lot going on out there that we’re not hearing enough about. And there is a lot going on in our own government besides its effort to cope with the virus. Some of it is disturbing. For example, the Administration continues full-speed-ahead with its dismantling of the government’s oversight of long-standing consumer protection, public safety, and environmental rules, hiding its onslaught behind virus press conferences and the President’s unending stream of issue-diverting tweets. Media must serve as the watchdogs we need to make informed decisions about our government and our future.

One lesson from the pandemic is the glaring shortfall of our telecommunication infrastructure. There are millions, tens of millions, of people who lack broadband at home. They are the still-employed trying to do their jobs online, the unemployed searching desperately for jobs, students who cannot attend classes online, potential entrepreneurs wanting to build new businesses from remote areas, communities of color and native lands by-passed because of the constricted build-out we have endured these many years, and sick people denied the opportunity for healthcare. Telework, tele-education, and telemedicine are must-have resources in the twenty-first century. I have long called this a civil right because without these things no one can fully participate in our democracy and society. We should have advanced far beyond where we are by now. But it cannot be accomplished without a true and comprehensive private-public sector partnership. It is time to stop the mind-numbing, fatuous debate of the past 25 years and finally get the broadband job done.

I believe that We, the People, can gather at the crossroads and chart a workable, democracy-building course ahead. We’ve done it before; we can do it again. So many people have stepped up to the plate during this difficult time. This includes the thousands and thousands of dedicated workers in our hospital, healthcare, police, fire, transportation, education, and government workforces who are proving once again the benefits that public service brings us. What an example they provide! And it includes so many of our families, friends, and fellow citizens who are right now sacrificing as we strive to defeat the killer plague. Now is the time to keep pulling together. Now is the time to restore faith in one another. Now is the time to more fully realize the great Promise of America.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC’s Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of “the public interest”; outreach to what he calls “non-traditional stakeholders” in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Learn more about Commissioner Copps in The Media Democracy Agenda: The Strategy and Legacy of FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps

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