EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column from the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full archive of Katrina’s Post columns here.
We live whipsawed by “polycrisis.” That’s the word historian Adam Tooze uses to describe multiple, simultaneous systemic crises that intensify as they collide, resulting in dire and deadly disruptions. The question we confront is whether we can rouse our battered politics to deal with them. If the 2022 election campaign is any indication, we’re not coming close.
Consider the rising price of food. The Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupts leading sources of grain and fertilizer. Drought drains the Mississippi River, endangering distribution of Midwestern crops. Drought in China and low rainfall in India, alongside monsoon floods in Pakistan, threaten rice production. Covid-19 runs rampant through meatpacking plants. Massive mergers reduce competition in food distribution and grocery stores. War, extreme weather, contagion, concentration combine to create a polycrisis. The most vulnerable get hit the worst. Hunger soars in Africa, and at home, the Census Bureau reports that 40 percent of American families struggle to cover the cost of basics—food, gas, housing. Children go to school weak with hunger.
The administration grapples with the crises, attempting, for example, to push legislation to cut poverty and create green jobs, but our gridlocked politics makes passing major initiatives virtually impossible. Republicans, a congressional minority, rail about inflation, blame Biden, and call for throwing the bums out. Yet they offer no plan on how to address inflation other than, apparently, to tacitly wait for the Federal Reserve to slow the economy, throw millions out of work, and reduce demand.
What’s worse, our political order is designed to make bold action difficult by arming the minority. As Presidents Donald Trump and George W. Bush showed, the loser of the popular vote can win the White House via the Electoral College. Gerrymandered districts and the two-Senate-seats-per-state rule enable the minority to control a majority in Congress. The filibuster gives a unified minority a virtual veto on reform. The Supreme Court’s disgraceful rulings on money and politics, such as the Citizens United decision, enable big money to corrupt our elections. And now, Trump and his zealous election deniers are pushing to make it harder to vote, threatening and displacing neutral election officials and mobilizing to intimidate voters.
Historically, the country has survived because in times of great crisis—the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II—the people rallied behind the president, Congress, the courts—and entrenched interests got out of the way.
But what happens in a polycrisis, when the crises are overlapping, endemic, and unending? President Biden has framed his security policy around the conflict between authoritarianism (read China and Russia) and democracy (read the United States and Europe). Because the president is freer to act abroad than he is at home, this stance gets translated largely into military alliances and deployments and human rights indictments of our adversaries’ repressive systems.
In an era of polycrisis, the real test will be at home: Can this democracy rise to meet the staggering challenges it faces, or will continuing gridlock make the decisiveness of homegrown dictators seem an attractive contrast?
What is already clear is that the center will not hold. Next week’s elections will produce a Republican congressional delegation that is more extreme and more dysfunctional—no matter who holds the majority. The elections are also likely to produce Democratic caucuses containing more progressives and fewer corporate Democrats.
Prediction is a fool’s game—particularly amid cascading crises. Will China decide that the Ukraine war makes this the best time to take Taiwan? Will the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court decide to roll back civil rights and gay rights and continue to undermine our elections? If the Federal Reserve drives a global recession, will Democrats get blamed in 2024?
One thing seems clear. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, reality is progressive. Pandemics demand an expanded public health system. Preposterous health care costs will force movement toward Medicare for All. Climate change and decoupling from China require a serious industrial policy and new trade relations. Ending the war in Ukraine will demand a recognition that diplomacy is not appeasement. Obscene inequality and corporate corruption mock those championing more tax cuts and deregulation. Policing the world is unaffordable and eventually will not be afforded.
That reality is progressive does not, however, make it democratic—either small or capital D. A people battered by multiple crises are tinder for those who would ignite racial fears and nativism. Fear and insecurity can easily displace the optimism that is the foundation of democracy. Our corrupted and gridlocked politics can make a strong leader and what has been called “illiberal democracy” seem attractive.
These elections—despite the triviality of campaigns flooded with oceans of disinformation and dishonesty—are consequential. They will decide who will address the polycrisis—and how.