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The American Mega-Crisis: COVID-19 and Beyond

Published online: 16 Oct 2020


The United States arguably has entered the greatest crisis in its history鈥攂ar none. Recent studies have illuminated the political and socioeconomic dimensions of the crisis, but observers have given too little attention to accelerated scientific and technological change as perhaps its central feature. This acceleration has generated a widening range of dangers extending from recurring pandemics and unchecked genetic engineering to intrusive artificial intelligence and global warming. Combined with the U.S. constitutional crisis, such dangers constitute a mega-crisis that is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways. To address it, we must think imaginatively about our past national crises without being blinkered by them. The Covid-19 pandemic shows the urgent need for major reforms of U.S. political, economic, and intellectual institutions鈥攔eforms that will become possible only with a dramatic repudiation of Donald Trump and the Republican Party in November.

Until six months ago, saying that America faces the worst crisis in our history would have seemed like sensationalism, but the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic have made the claim more plausible. For the American public, Covid-19 was 鈥渢he biological equivalent of Sept. 11鈥攗nthinkable until it happened鈥 (Plumer and Davenport 2019). The pandemic and the international turmoil it triggered have provided a shocking illustration of the social upheavals and violence that a multi-dimensional crisis can ignite.

Yet the Covid-19 pandemic, monumental and agonizing though it is, is not the only type of imaginable crisis likely to occur in the future. The technological complexity of modern societies makes them susceptible to many types of disruptions (Perrow 2011). Even after our country ultimately emerges from the physical devastation of Covid-19, the socio-economic consequences are likely to linger for many years, and our uncertain national recovery will probably intersect with other novel emergencies. With little forethought, America has entered an evolving mega-crisis that has more dimensions, is more technically complex, and will last much longer than any of our past national trials. Our country has reached a fateful historical juncture, and other fateful crossroads lie ahead.

This article sketches some of the salient risks waiting in the wings. It then explores how those potential crises may affect the U.S. political system. It also asks what kind of actions may be necessary to deal with the new dangers. To discuss this subject without engaging in a substantial amount of speculation is impossible. But that is no reason not to think about it now, before some of the speculations turn into irreversible realities. To aid national decision-making, the social-science disciplines must strive to make connections between history and hypothetical futures, and to do this more systematically than has typically been done before. (Flyvbjerg et al. 2012, Prewitt 2019, Smith 2020, 10鈥12).

What We Know and What We Don鈥檛

In the past decade, many books and 旺财体育 have illuminated the crisis of democracy in the U.S. and other advanced countries. Still, most of these studies have framed America鈥檚 current political problems too narrowly. That is because they have neglected the dangers inherent in the rapidly accelerating tempo of scientific and technological change along an extended front. Often this issue has been masked by the assumption that advances in science and technology always favor the prospects of democratic political systems, especially vis-脿-vis authoritarian ones.

The past two decades have shown that this is utopian thinking from a bygone era. During the Cold War, xerox machines and the 鈥渕arketplace of ideas鈥 were serious threats to dictatorships, but that is no longer the case. During the past two decades, Russia and China have skillfully employed sophisticated information technologies to thwart domestic opposition and pursue their geopolitical goals, and other authoritarian regimes are imitating them.

Due to recent unmonitored break-throughs in the development of science and technology, many dangers hover over our country and humanity at large. One observer has described the historical crossroads in these terms: 鈥淚f the world holds itself in thrall to all the instrumental offerings of science and technology with little regard for their larger implications鈥攆or what they mean for our destiny as a species or for our moral obligations to one another and to the world in which we live鈥攈uman civilization is not long for this planet.鈥 (Brown 2009, Preface)

Among the dangers confronting our country are the unforeseeable consequences of manipulative artificial intelligence and intrusive information technologies; debilitating national breakdowns triggered by cyber-attacks from state or nonstate actors; the rising risk of nuclear war between the superpowers; recurrent global pandemics accelerated by international commerce; bioterrorism of stunning sophistication; and of course, the hydra-headed menace of climate change. (Clarke and Eddy 2017) To make matters worse, these new dangers have emerged alongside negative long-term trends in conventional measures of socioeconomic well-being in the U.S.鈥攎ost of which have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Together these conditions pose an entirely novel challenge to the United States. This is especially true of the Internet and climate change鈥攂oth of which are ramifying with baffling complexity into every corner of our national life. In the words of Jonathan Lethem, 鈥渢he Internet, like climate change, exemplifies鈥 鈥榟yperobject鈥: a thing impossible to hold in mind because of its context-smashing extensivity in time and space.鈥 Yet our political leaders and citizens must find a way to comprehend the implications of such developments and deal with them effectively, if our country is to survive in any recognizable form.

The essential point is that 鈥渢he鈥 crisis unfolding before us is really a constellation of current and potential crises that will pose unprecedented challenges. We face not a single threatening event, but a dangerous permanent change of our nation鈥檚 circumstances for the worse. That is why I have termed it a mega-crisis. The multiple emerging crises are likely to interact in unpredictable ways, thereby creating a snowballing political agenda and making each individual danger harder to address. The mega-crisis will exert especially heavy demands on U.S. decision-makers and researchers because its elements are likely to shift rapidly. Political and institutional leaders must always deal with urgent issues in real time, and even the ablest leader鈥檚 capacity for effective prioritization has strict limits. For large governmental organizations, adapting to radically changed circumstances is more difficult still.

Meeting the unprecedented demands of the mega-crisis will require sophisticated forecasting, comprehensive risk assessments, and flexible governmental calculations and re-calculations of political priorities. Decisive action by government institutions and a novel level of interagency coordination will be necessary. The mutating crisis will also necessitate probing investigations by social researchers, natural scientists, and engineers. Not least, it will require a broader interpretation of the common good on the part of all Americans, including ordinary citizens. This new situation poses an enormous challenge to governments of all kinds, but perhaps especially to democracies.

Today the United States is unequipped to mount a satisfactory response to this ominous situation. Some of the trends have come to a head during the worst U.S. constitutional upheaval since the Civil War. The outcome of that upheaval remains entirely uncertain, and it might result in widespread political violence or even an outright anti-electoral coup by the president. In one way or another, we appear to be on the path toward a series of emergencies that could overwhelm our national decision-making capacity and resources.

Baselines: Learning and Mislearning from Past Crises

Under these conditions, what lessons can we draw from our past national crises and the crises of other nations? National crises come in many forms, and social commentators have defined the notion of crisis in many different ways. More important, though, is that the retrospective definition of any 鈥済iven鈥 crisis depends on interpretations shaped by the current sensibilities of the analysts examining it. How, for instance, should we define the spatial, chronological, and topical boundaries of the Great Depression? Did it end for the U.S. in the mid-1930s or at the start of World War II? Should it be considered separately from or together with the dictatorial movements that simultaneously threatened democratic governments in other countries? Despite such complications, past upheavals are the only events we can use as a starting-point to gauge our present national situation. They also play a subconscious role in the way we think about that situation even when we don鈥檛 consciously consider them. The pivotal problem is to decide which of those past crises, if any, resemble the crises we now face or may face in the future. By the same token, we must ask how our current national situation differs from the past crises that may at first glance seem similar.

Most national crises have several features in common. They threaten the whole political system or society; they emerge with unexpected severity; and they raise dangers for which there are no proven solutions. Crises often provoke strong disagreements about which national values鈥攕uch as peace versus military credibility or public health versus economic revival鈥攕eem most at risk and most important to protect. In such times, inherited policy options offer no ready-made responses. Instead officials must make unorthodox decisions that entail painful consequences without any assurance of relief. And those decisions, whether or not they succeed, may alter the political order in an enduring way.

These features are evident in the three types of national crisis that have recurred in U.S. history: international wars, severe domestic conflicts presenting the risk of large-scale violence, and major domestic economic contractions. The two world wars are the most salient external military crises. The most important episodes of internal violence are the Civil War in the 1860s and the hybrid clashes over racial discrimination and the Vietnam war about a century later. U.S. history has been repeatedly punctuated by major economic contractions, but the three most important before this year are the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s, and the Great Recession of 2008鈥9.

The successful management of a national crisis depends on several elements: a timely and reasonably accurate diagnosis of its causes; the availability of adequate expertise and material resources to address it; effective political leadership able to rally national energies and enact policies with a plausible chance of success; and implementation of those policies through executive action bolstered by the compliance of key social groups. Responding effectively is especially difficult when essential information and analysis are lacking, as they were, for example, during the Great Depression. Deep conflicts erupt over who caused the crisis and which groups should bear the burden of remedial measures.

National crises typically ignite wide-ranging debates involving intellectuals and experts about the policy implications of their knowledge. The reliability of experts鈥 knowledge is likely to come under challenge as worried citizens ask whether they can trust the experts to cope with the unanticipated hardships. The problem of trust is particularly pronounced when experts disagree with one another or with other specialists who have different types of expertise鈥攁s is often the case. Tensions surrounding expertise and public trust were especially marked during the Great Depression and the stagflation of the 1970s, and to a lesser extent during the run-up to the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.

In wrestling with such challenges, participants usually seek to draw lessons from comparable episodes in the past. However, identifying those episodes and generating useful policy prescriptions from them is much harder than it looks. George Santayana rightly said that 鈥渢hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.鈥 But this saying is an inadequate guide to action because it skirts the vital question of what the past is. 鈥淗istory鈥 is not an open book鈥攐r even a closed one. Written history is a vast sea of descriptive accounts which overlap and jostle one another and which cannot be integrated systematically into a single overarching narrative. To frame historical analogies, fundamental assumptions and judgments must be made鈥攃onsciously or unconsciously鈥攁nd often the analogies that seem most obvious are misguided. (Hofstadter and Sander 2013; Geary 2011)

Consider, for example, the Great Depression and the Munich Conference of 1938. Focusing on these dramatic historical episodes, some later observers extracted policy lessons that proved erroneous, sometimes disastrously so. Part of the problem was that memories of these past crises were so salient that decision-makers intuitively seized on them to interpret novel circumstances to which they did not apply. Systematic reasoning about historical parallels and contrasts is a demanding task. To perform it effectively, analysts must study the history of supposed lessons before deciding whether to accept the lessons themselves. (Eichengreen 2015; Brands and Suri 2016)

A more recent example is the U.S. economic recession and stagflation of the 1970s. That painful decade unexpectedly combined high unemployment with high rates of inflation; it was a watershed in American thinking about the proper relationship between government and the economy. In what seemed an enlightened intellectual shift, the economic turmoil prompted many political and economic commentators to jettison Keynesian principles of macroeconomic management and embrace neoliberal prescriptions instead. In actuality, the market-friendly policies these critics embraced would probably have failed as completely as Keynesianism seemed to do during the 1970s; much of the U.S. economic disruption came from abroad, through the powerful oil-price shocks inflicted by the OPEC countries, rather than only from mistakes in domestic economic policy. To be fair, we must acknowledge that President Lyndon Johnson鈥檚 attempt to fight the Vietnam War without raising taxes helped spur U.S. inflation after 1967. It鈥檚 doubtful, though, that any sensible Keynesian would have endorsed Johnson鈥檚 ill-conceived gambit. In 1968, his Council of Economic Advisors was already warning him about the dangers of inflationary spending. Nevertheless, the rightward political turn paved the way for a sweeping reduction in federal economic regulation. As neoliberal proselytizers spread their views through American society and ruling circles, the idolization of 鈥渢he market鈥 and the vilification of 鈥渂ig government鈥 struck deep roots, especially among the financiers who stood to profit from those ideas. (Rodgers 2011; Appelbaum 2019)

The 1970s upheaval had effects that persist to the present day. The course of the Great Recession of 2008鈥9, for example, was shaped by the shift toward market deregulation. In large measure, the Great Recession resulted from the failure of federal lawmakers and agencies to stay abreast of the rapidly changing technology of capital markets鈥攅specially the creation of unregulated shadow banking. (Perrow 2011, viii-xv). The episode showed that government officials and economists had learned too little from the Great Depression to prevent a financial meltdown鈥攏ot least because of their naive overconfidence that they had already learned the relevant policy lessons from the Depression era. And their reading of the Depression was refracted through the added lessons they had drawn from the economic trauma of the 1970s. (Eichengreen 2015, 2鈥5)

On the other hand, federal officials and economists had learned enough to keep the financial crisis, once it occurred, from becoming a complete economic collapse. A prompt monetary response by the Federal Reserve Bank helped avoid that outcome鈥攊n part because Ben Bernanke, the head of the bank, had previously studied the dynamics of the Great Depression in detail. The legislative bailout of troubled banks near the end of George W. Bush鈥檚 presidency was also a precondition for avoiding a Depression-style collapse. But policymakers were not prescient enough to ensure a rapid recovery from the recession by following up with an adequate fiscal stimulus. Despite a consensus among economists that a very large stimulus was required, Congressional support for this approach was weak, and it was further undermined by the publication of an influential but inaccurate book by Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, which denigrated the economic effectiveness of federal actions during the New Deal. (Rauchway 2018, 36鈥38)

In consequence, the stimulus package hammered out in negotiations between the Obama White House and the Congress fell far short of what was needed. The limit on its size imposed by Congressional Republicans made the post-crisis recovery painfully slow鈥攎uch slower than previous post-recession recoveries had been. Added to the initial shocks of the financial meltdown, the anemic recovery intensified the ongoing radicalization of popular attitudes toward government. That radicalization fueled the Tea Party movement, thereby increasing the odds of government paralysis in the following years.

Today, broad disputes about economic policy have been temporarily eclipsed by the upheavals linked with the COVID-19 pandemic and the desperate need for sweeping government action to help most Americans and economic enterprises survive. But there are already serious partisan differences about the scope of the federal response, and the old debates are likely to flare up soon with heightened intensity, since the argument about the proper relationship between markets and government runs like a bright thread through American history. In the future, when today鈥檚 bubbling disagreements again come to a boil, the question of learning or mislearning from history will return with a vengeance.

What can we learn from our recent national history, and what should we disregard as irrelevant or misleading? In my opinion, we could easily learn the wrong lessons. Above all, there will be a serious risk of attempting to 鈥渞eturn to normal鈥 in economic and political affairs, just as many Americans now long to return to the normalcy of their past lives. There is a danger that we will treat the COVID-19 emergency in a fashion resembling the attitudes of many Americans relieved by the end of World War II and eager to return to a peace-time existence. What will be needed instead is a searching debate about our recent experience that draws specific lessons about policy without relying on facile parallels with the past. What those specific lessons should be is a subject that serious thinkers should wrestle with now, rather than waiting until the crisis appears to be abating.

To do this successfully, it will be essential to attain a broader understanding of the way our country has customarily thought about itself and the outside world. It is a commonplace that nations usually understand their own histories imperfectly, at best. As a society, we must learn to practice what psychologists call 鈥渕etacognition鈥濃攖hat is, to understand how we think rather than just what we think. Psychologists have demonstrated that individuals and groups often respond impulsively to unexpected situations on the basis of misguided 鈥渋nstincts,鈥 and recent changes have accentuated this tendency. (Kahneman 2011) Snowballing alterations in communications technologies like Facebook and Twitter have saturated public consciousness with nonstop messaging; they have made us an 鈥渆ntertainment nation鈥 frequently distracted from vital public questions and susceptible to buzz-word political responses. The changes have strengthened the pressures for unmediated populist rule and have undermined the deliberative capacity of our electoral institutions. (Wu 2016; Patterson 2019). The public鈥檚 current confusion about COVID-19 shows the importance of developing a national capacity for metacognition to facilitate more sophisticated responses to unexpected events.

This is an epic challenge to democratic decision-making that intellectuals and scholars must help the country meet. The disruption and shock caused by the pandemic may create a political opening for substantive learning on the part of many Americans, even though some ultra-conservatives and some rich Americans will undoubtedly double down on their old views. For reasons explained below, the upheavals of recent months may provoke a deeper rethinking of U.S. historical experience. But a favorable political turn of this kind is only one possible upshot from the pandemic. The Great Depression powerfully intensified xenophobic, authoritarian movements, not only in Europe but also in America, and similar domestic tendencies might ultimately prevail in today鈥檚 United States.

That is why the impending national political debate is vitally important. Much will hinge on the ability of Democratic leaders and activists to reassess recent Democratic orthodoxies and to link the political failures of the past four years with the Republican Party as a whole instead of ascribing them only to Donald Trump鈥檚 irresponsible behavior. Much will also hinge on the capacity of intellectuals and scholars to think critically about the relationship between America鈥檚 past crises and current circumstances. As we strive to derive useful lessons from our national experience, we must ponder the intellectual dynamics that generated key lessons in the past鈥攅specially those which turned out to be wrong.

In this high-stakes debate, it will be vital to show that the evolving constellation of crises we have entered is more formidable than our past national trials. Most of our past crises have been more focused, have been potentially soluble within a shorter time-frame, and have offered clearer yardsticks of success or failure, such as military victory or a return to previous levels of production. They have also entailed smaller commitments of material resources over the very long term. The mega-crisis, as I have termed it, is likely to be a succession of interacting emergencies whose specific features will be especially difficult to forecast based on simple extrapolations from previous experience. This sequence of destabilizing challenges will be more diffuse and will vary in substance over time, making it far harder to decipher intellectually and address politically.

One feature that made several previous U.S. crises surmountable was the availability of a relatively clear standard of success that could be given overriding priority and be pursued by adapting political approaches used earlier. Deciding to wage general wars, for example, has been politically difficult, and winning those conflicts has been a massively complex task, as shown by the extraordinary U.S. mobilization during World War II. (Wilson 2016; Kennedy 2013) But achieving victory in major wars has been a relatively straightforward undertaking compared with addressing the series of societal disruptions the mega-crisis is likely to generate. A similar contrast holds for past economic contractions. Today鈥檚 economic plunge is interwoven with novel public-health complications, and it raises perplexing questions about how to handle extraordinary federal deficits and a near-total freeze on some forms of productive activity.

A second key to mastering past national crises has been the effective use of the expertise of a wide range of specialists. The role played by Roosevelt鈥檚 famous 鈥渂rain trust鈥 during the Great Depression is well known. During World War II the federal government tapped the ranks of leading university scientists and engineers, and it drew on social scientists and humanities scholars to analyze foreign geopolitical developments. Economists and sociologists likewise played an important part in organizing and administering the domestic war effort. (Katz 1990; Wilson 2016, 147鈥48)

To deal with today鈥檚 unfolding crisis, the country will need innovative planning and large-scale actions implemented across a time-span much greater than any previous crisis has demanded. Climate change, in particular, will require drastic reallocations of national resources and government responses to serial natural disasters on a physical and chronological scale that will be unprecedented. Disasters of this kind have already begun; witness the extraordinary wildfires in California and Oregon and the massive floods in the Middle West. Responding to such disasters will generate enormous strains on the country鈥檚 political and economic capacities. If my overall analysis is correct, America鈥檚 protracted mega-crisis will be materially demanding, additive, and open-ended in a manner that we have not previously experienced.

Improving U.S. Decisionmaking and Research

The swarm of new dangers could hardly have arisen at a worse juncture for the United States and the world. Today there is no hope of generating timely and effective responses to the mega-crisis without dramatic political change. In America, the democratic institutions required to address the crisis have deteriorated severely. Wealthy elites have promoted destructive policies through pop-up think tanks which issue pseudo-research that is amplified by conservative radio and TV commentators. Mainline television news and cultural commonalities have been eclipsed and fragmented by partisan cable-news channels and hyper-partisan social media sites. Steamrollered by Google and Facebook, some leading national newspapers have barely avoided bankruptcy, and more than 1,800 local newspapers have been swept away. (Abramson 2019, Chs. 7鈥8, PEN-America 2019, 27). These trends have weakened Americans鈥 comprehension of current political and economic affairs, severely degrading public discourse and crippling the deliberations of government policymakers. (Wu 2016; Benkler et al. 2018)

Meanwhile, the national capacity to levy taxes and redirect fiscal resources has declined dramatically, due to sustained right-wing pressure. The resulting cuts have shrunk government鈥檚 overall proportional share of GDP by about twelve percent since 2000 (calculated from Stiglitz 2020, 30). Steep cuts in federal and state revenue have been rammed through by slashing investment in research, education, infrastructure, and citizen life expectancy. And the fiscal shortfall has been worsened by a severe misallocation of available national resources. Military programs consume a substantial share of federal spending and GDP. (Matthews 2019) But most damaging is the extraordinarily wasteful and inequitable 鈥渕edical-industrial complex,鈥 which absorbs a far larger share of GDP than military spending does. A comprehensive reform of the health sector to match European levels of health efficiency would generate savings almost twice as large as the total U.S. defense budget. (Case and Deaton 2020, 7)

Well before the arrival of COVID-19, these tax and fiscal policies did serious harm. Years of neglect have left our country鈥檚 infrastructure decrepit鈥攊n 2017 the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned U.S. infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus鈥攁nd the resilience of our political system against natural disasters such as floods and wildfires is alarmingly weak. The shocking mishandling of Hurricane Katrina under George W. Bush and Hurricane Maria under Donald Trump are cases in point. Compared with countries that have coped more effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. spends far less than it should on social and economic programs that might have made our country more resilient. But even in most other advanced countries, the democratic institutions required to address the new challenges have undergone serious deterioration. Except possibly for Germany, all of Europe鈥檚 major democracies have been badly weakened.

Due partly to these parallel declines in democratic capacity, the international arrangements required to address the worldwide consequences of the mega-crisis have been undermined. Before COVID-19 struck, the multilateral regime designed to order the world economy was already under heavy strain, due especially to the Trump Administration鈥檚 confrontational stance toward China and its attack on the World Trade Organization. While these trends have figured prominently in the news, the simultaneous increase in the danger of nuclear war has not. For the past two decades, the framework of interstate agreements to limit nuclear-weapons competition has been steadily eroding, and it is now on the verge of collapse. According to nuclear experts Ernst Moniz and Sam Nunn, advances in weapons technology and the weakening of the arms-control regime have brought the United States and Russia closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Moniz and Nunn 2019) The danger of a nuclear clash between the superpowers has been augmented by the risk of 鈥渕inor鈥 nuclear wars involving countries like India and Pakistan. And the task of avoiding nuclear conflict now overlaps with novel challenges鈥攅specially the challenge of protecting nuclear and conventional weapons from unauthorized use or incapacitation through hostile cyber operations. Two other experts have described U.S. weapons systems and military communications as alarmingly vulnerable to cyber-attack. They report that the Pentagon has done very little to prepare for this possibility and that 鈥渢here is no real ongoing diplomacy with regard to cyberspace and cyber war.鈥 (Clarke and Knacke 2019, 203; Nakashima 2020)

International agreements designed to preserve the natural environment are likewise on the verge of breakdown. The Trump Administration has renounced the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, making the accord鈥檚 survival uncertain, and most analysts agree that even its conscientious implementation would be insufficient to avoid severe climate damage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization has been caught in a withering crossfire as the U.S. and China have tried to shed responsibility for their own failures by blaming one another or the WHO. (Garrett 2020, 12鈥23)

For all these reasons, coming to grips with the mega-crisis will require extraordinary exertions from leaders and citizens in every sector of American society, including politics, business, higher education, and culture. (It will require similar efforts from other countries, but without decisive U.S. action their exertions will be in vain.) Given the current U.S. political situation, this will be impossible; only a dramatic turnabout in our national politics can put it within reach. Extensive reforms of the political and governmental practices at the center of our national life will be necessary. To make Congress capable of decisive action, it might even be necessary to revise the Constitutional principle of equal Senate representation for all states, as the Nobel-prize-winning economist Angus Deaton has obliquely implied. (Deaton 2020) In any case, with courageous leadership at all levels of society, a renewal of civic-mindedness might make decisive political reform possible. The stresses linked with COVID-19 have certainly increased the likelihood of major systemic changes of some sort鈥攁lthough negative outcomes are just as imaginable as positive ones.

In the coming political struggle, how the central political and economic issues are framed will be crucial. Scholars and campaign professionals attest to the pivotal significance of issue-framing, along with the importance of shaping public views early, before those views have hardened. These insights are directly relevant to the struggles surrounding the current presidential campaign. In the coming months, one crucial aspect of issue-framing will be how analysts and politicians transmute past American crises into 鈥渦sable history.鈥 For instance, commentators commonly refer to the Great Depression as a benchmark for our current economic travails, and Donald Trump, far less plausibly, now casts himself as a leader working under war-like conditions. When viewed in retrospect, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely bear only a limited resemblance to the Great Depression. And the current upheaval bears almost no similarity to the domestic dynamics of World War II or any other external military conflict, despite Trump鈥檚 efforts to create a militaristic sense of emergency.

How the attitudes of various social groups evolve in the coming months and years will be of decisive importance to the prospects for reform. It is too soon to judge the pandemic鈥檚 lasting effects on public attitudes, but the 2020 elections will be an acid test. The economic upheavals of the 1930s made many citizens receptive to FDR鈥檚 bold leadership style and undermined the vested corporate interests that opposed active government. In the coming months, the pandemic鈥檚 harsh consequences might produce a similar receptiveness among Americans. Elderly citizens who previously supported Trump will probably reconsider in view of his incoherent handling of the pandemic and the resulting spike of deaths among the old. For different reasons, Trump will probably be opposed by many members of the younger generation, who have been burdened with high educational debt, bad career prospects, pandemic unemployment, and the long shadow cast by global warming. Members of this generation could mobilize to push radical change, but only if they can be persuaded to exert themselves through established political institutions鈥攁bove all, by voting. With the same caveat, a potential for positive political action also exists among the poor and minority Americans who have been disproportionately killed by the pandemic.

In view of these dramatic circumstances, now is the time to start planning far-reaching political and policy reforms. Obama presidential advisor Rahm Emanuel once remarked that reformers should 鈥渘ever let a crisis go to waste.鈥 To shape the path of future U.S. political development, rigorous framing of the unfolding mega-crisis is crucial. Drawing on accounts of past national trials, intellectual and scholars have a vital role in the contest over how to conceptualize the unfolding events. Exceptional determination and exceptional luck could end our current national political deadlock and allow the processes of constitutional restoration and institutional reorganization to begin.

Effective political framing of these issues will also require societal recollection of the authentically heroic political and moral leaders from U.S. history who can serve as inspiring models in the ongoing struggle for reform. None of those great leaders was free of moral defects, and those defects must be honestly acknowledged. That is one of the key demands of the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters. But acknowledging those defects can help us understand the simultaneous greatness of past leaders鈥 achievements and serve as a salutary reminder of America鈥檚 capacity for political regeneration and social progress. Although we must dial back our veneration of Jefferson and Washington, we can still prize the ideals they articulated, and we can admire other leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who fought to transform those ideals into full political realities.

Reappraising the Social Contributions of Government and Scientific Expertise

To come to grips with the mega-crisis over the longer term, prevailing U.S. views about the role of government and the role of science must be recast. For at least four decades the ultra-right has waged a relentless 鈥渨ar on government鈥 based on claims that government is inherently predatory and all government action is bad. As Paul Pierson and Andrew Hacker have shown in their book, American Amnesia, those claims fly in the face of extensive evidence stretching back more than two centuries. American government, at its best, has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with society and has made indispensable contributions to our country鈥檚 socio-economic development. (Hacker and Pierson 2016) It is time for a frontal counterattack on ideological stereotypes that ignore this fact. The COVID-19 pandemic provides fresh ammunition for such a counter-offensive but does not guarantee its success. Today it is vital to shift the terms of public discussion from blanket condemnations of government to a recognition that government鈥檚 performance, although certainly variable, is often constructive and improved in some respects in the two decades before Trump鈥檚 election.

There have, of course, been genuine government failures in U.S. history, just as there have been failures of corporations and other major institutions. The federal failure to detect terrorist preparations for the 9/11 attacks is a graphic example. But government failures like the Trump Administration鈥檚 incoherent response to the COVID-19 pandemic are not inevitable. Rather they are products of incompetent political leadership and the staffing of government agencies with patronage appointees in place of qualified experts. Political maneuvering and the pursuit of personal enrichment by such opportunistic appointees constitute the real 鈥渄eep state.鈥 This conclusion is buttressed by the far greater success of the governments of other advanced countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, in taming the COVID-19 pandemic.

Related hurdles to national regeneration are raised by U.S. attitudes toward science and learning in our country. At the apex of the political system, distrust of scientific expertise has steadily grown under Republican presidents and legislative leaders, starting especially with Newt Gingrich. At their behest, the science advisory and technology assessment offices in the Executive Branch and Congress have been weakened, and censorship to block publication of unflattering reports from government scientists has become a habitual gambit to avoid upsetting the Republican Party鈥檚 fundamentalist supporters. These moves have provoked protests from U.S. scientists. In 2004, for example, forty-eight Nobel laureates and many other researchers publicly condemned the George W. Bush Administration for ignoring 鈥渙bjective and impartial鈥 scientific findings when formulating government policies. (Wang 2008)

Nonetheless, under Trump, the anti-scientific trend in government has become more severe. Trump has regularly overridden consensus views among scientists and other professionals, and he has driven many civil-service experts from their careers in agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. He has also prompted the removal of large quantities of data from the government鈥檚 public websites. Most recently he has shown a desire to 鈥渟olve鈥 the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing the scope of testing鈥攁 mind-boggling example of magical thinking. These pressures, part of Trump鈥檚 war on the 鈥渄eep state,鈥 have been on display in his public skirmishes with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading government authority on infectious diseases. Amplified by the destructive conduct of Trump鈥檚 Republican enablers in Congress, the net result has been a steep decline in the technical sophistication and effectiveness of the federal government.

That decline poses a fundamental question about the political role of knowledge in America. A half-century ago, some social theorists asserted that the United States was becoming an 鈥渋nformation society鈥 or even a 鈥渒nowledge society,鈥 but recent trends make such claims seem almost comically inaccurate. Dramatic changes in social and electronic media during recent decades have raised basic doubts about whether the so-called marketplace of ideas can still separate truths from falsehoods. Massive quantities of data, of course, are central to the operation of advanced economies鈥攂ut a similarly upbeat claim cannot be made for the role of knowledge in American public life. These negative trends pose a basic question: to what degree has the United States become an 鈥渋gnorance society鈥 rather than a knowledge society?

The culture wars of the past three decades have sharpened the question. Cultural conflict has encouraged conservative citizens to denigrate the value of science and expertise; conservatives also tend to oppose scientists鈥 participation in government decision-making. Distrust of universities and colleges has similarly hardened among lay persons who lean toward the Republican Party, and these same skeptics are especially inclined to discount the reality of climate change. On the other hand, a survey by the Pew Research Center shows that overall public trust in science remains much higher than trust in any other professional group except the military, and it has actually increased during the Trump presidency. (Funk et al. 2019) Hence there is a potential for the pandemic experience to turn public attitudes toward an unambiguous endorsement of scientific involvement in government decision-making. Whether that happens will depend partly on the public postures adopted by political and cultural leaders鈥斺攁nd of course on the results of the 2020 elections.

To address the mega-crisis with any hope of success, the U.S. government must anticipate emerging scientific and technological problems much more actively and take decisive steps to deal with them promptly. This will require a revival of political will, along with greater scientific and technological literacy inside the Executive Branch and especially among the members of Congress. Specialized agencies in the Executive and Legislative Branches must be reestablished and buttressed to track new scientific discoveries and especially new technological innovations. At present, Congress lacks the institutional capacity to absorb and act on the incoming torrent of information about new science and technology. A Congressional Office of Technology Assessment was established in the 1970s, but it was abolished in the mid-1990s, when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives. (Mooney 2005, 48) This situation leaves lawmakers vulnerable to biased technical advice from heavily-funded lobbies pursuing narrow commercial interests at the expense of the public good. (Drutman 2015)

Dealing with the mega-crisis will also require greatly expanded national efforts at social and technological forecasting to fortify intelligent government decision-making. Some Americans instinctively distrust the idea of government planning, partly as a result of the Cold-War ideological struggle against the USSR, whose rigid and dysfunctional economic plans gave the concept of central planning a deservedly negative reputation. However, less prescriptive forecasting and contingency planning can be far more flexible. Many variants are already being utilized in U.S. corporations, insurance companies, public health organizations, intelligence agencies, the presidential Council of Economic Advisors, and the Pentagon, which is actively planning measures to deal with the military-security risks produced by climate change. The existing networks of forecasters and planners should be enlarged and strengthened to make government actions more coherent and to align the substance of national R & D efforts with the most pressing national needs.

These networks should also be linked more fully with the line operations of major government agencies. The resources devoted to forecasting and contingency planning inside each agency should be increased, and regular conferences among agency forecasters should compare the agency scenarios and work to integrate them. Any attempts by budget hawks to limit such efforts on the pretext of curtailing 鈥渨asteful government spending鈥 should be vigorously resisted. Above all, a special intelligence unit should be created within each executive agency and assigned the mission of systematically scanning the horizon for dangerous developments in the agency鈥檚 specialized domain. Richard Clarke, a former federal official with several decades of national security experience, has advocated this change in his book, Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. Warnings from such intelligence units are an indispensable ingredient of timely government responses to national emergencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a disturbing demonstration that the U.S. political system has sometimes failed to heed such warnings. The danger of viral pandemics was flagged in major reports from the U.S. intelligence community for at least a dozen years before COVID-19 struck. Moreover, in 2018鈥19 a federally sponsored simulation demonstrated that a new viral pandemic would overwhelm the government鈥檚 haphazard procedures and limited stockpiles of emergency supplies. Nonetheless, there was no political follow-up to improve the country鈥檚 response capacity. Instead the Trump administration downgraded the special National Security Council office charged with providing early warning of viral outbreaks. (Sanger et al. 2020; Garrett 2020). Had the NSC office been preserved and had the White House heeded its warnings, COVID-19 might have done far less damage to our country鈥檚 people and economy.

To counter such risks, efforts to improve the quality of organized forecasting should be intensified. With this aim, the psychologist Philip Tetlock and his associates have conducted studies to improve collective prediction and forecasting by government and other experts. (Tetlock 2005; Tetlock and Gardner 2015) Cognitive scientists have likewise sharpened academic understanding of how humans鈥 intuitive assumptions affect our decisions. Massive evidence shows that our preexisting concepts powerfully affect which aspects of 鈥渆xternal鈥 reality we notice, how we interpret them, and why we often misunderstand them. (Kahneman, 2011) That research should be incorporated into the design of decision-making processes throughout the American government, state as well as federal. It should also be introduced as a standard component of American higher and secondary education.

National decision-making about science and technology has been harmed not just by hostility to science, but by other misleading ideas. One is the widespread notion that the development of technology along particular paths is predetermined. Many Americans have a habit of regarding science and technology as 鈥渘atural forces鈥 that cannot be controlled, when in fact each consists of long chains of intellectual and economic decisions subject in principle to more careful national management. This habit fosters political fatalism and acceptance of negative trends that might otherwise be avoided. The most important example is the three-decade-old libertarian assumption that the Internet is a single 鈥渢hing鈥 with a fixed nature unrelated to its sociopolitical context. That unfounded assumption contributed to the emergence of the destructive side-effects of social media and online commerce that U.S. legislators are only now, belatedly, struggling to overcome. We urgently need more countrywide coordination and monitoring of research and development in all fields of knowledge.

Pursuing this goal will require strenuous thinking about how organized action can facilitate scientific and technological break-throughs while minimizing their negative side-effects. Decisions to pursue specific scientific investigations and technological undertakings require scrupulous ethical appraisal, not only by individual researchers but through collective institutional procedures. In the case of basic scientific research, probing ethical appraisals are needed to revise research priorities and levels of budgetary support for specific fields and projects. The revolutionary domain of synthetic biology is an especially salient example. Such assessments will require searching self-examinations by leading scientists and university administrators to reevaluate their institutions鈥 priorities and weigh the societal implications of particular research projects.

In the realm of technological innovation, the mega-crisis requires a stepped-up effort to assess new technologies in advance. Government technology assessment is hardly novel: government regulation of automotive technology is now nearly a century old, and government has been appraising the environmental impacts of some policies and economic activities for more than five decades. But the scope and rigor of technology assessment must be extended. Like earlier efforts, this one will raise basic questions about the proper balance between government oversight and individual initiative in corporations and universities, as well as in government agencies. Under the new rubric of 鈥渞esponsible innovation,鈥 some social thinkers and entrepreneurs are seeking to formulate constructive standards. In the realm of pharmaceutical research, for instance, more R&D should be focused on new drugs that meet overriding human needs, regardless of individuals鈥 limited capacity to pay鈥攁s is usually the case in the underdeveloped world.

Conducting such assessments will require scholars and officials to confront the conundrum of delineating the boundaries among different bodies of knowledge. The exercise of intellectual authority is a perennial issue in universities and other knowledge-based institutions, especially because the boundaries among different fields of expertise shift continuously and are the locus of vigorous professional disputes among their members. Beneath the stable fa莽ades of university departments run the deep currents of academic debate and contention that generate intellectual progress. Somewhat similar tensions exist inside business and administrative organizations designed to promote rapid innovation. In these organizations, officials face a ubiquitous problem: who possesses sufficient knowledge to make key decisions鈥攁nd what should be done when no individual possesses all the relevant knowledge?

This problem is especially thorny in the political arena. Tensions inevitably arise between political officials and expert advisors inside and outside of government. One source of difficulty is the fluidity of the lines between the judgments of political officials and those of experts. Another is the fluidity of the lines separating the divergent judgments offered by different types of experts. The counsels of experts are sometimes divided鈥攅ven inside individual fields of specialization. For example, the evolution of U.S. atomic weaponry and programs like the Strategic Defense Initiative has sparked recurring scientific debates over which military paths are technically feasible and preferable in substantive terms. (Wang 2008)

This general problem is also illustrated by the handling of climate change during the administration of George H. W. Bush. Historians have plausibly argued that the chances for constructive U.S. action on climate change were higher during Bush鈥檚 presidency than in later years. By the late 1980s, several climatologists had sounded an alarm about global warming, and little organized opposition to the idea existed鈥攊n contrast to the vigorous resistance mobilized by opponents during the next decade. Although important aspects of climate change still needed study, many scientists believed it was a serious problem that required political action. However, despite President Bush鈥檚 declarations of his determination to combat climate change, the federal response was half-hearted at best.

Except for President Bush himself, John Sununu, his chief of staff, was the Administration official who had the biggest part in deciding how to deal with climate change, and Sununu did not take it seriously. Several decades earlier, before launching a successful career in New Hampshire politics, Sununu had earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering from MIT. Confident of his own technical competence, he believed he was qualified to judge the results of scientific research on climate change, and he dismissed the early warnings as an alarmist intrusion into politics by left-leaning scientific researchers. (Rich 2019) Although we cannot be sure what might have happened otherwise, Sununu鈥檚 dismissive attitude heightened the probability that the matter would not receive adequate political attention.

Since then, changes in Washington鈥檚 political atmosphere and the media have worsened the prospects for intelligent governmental decision-making based on science. Public debates over complex issues like climate change offer plentiful opportunities to manufacture pseudo-expertise as a basis for false assertions. Most U.S. electronic media have become eager to recruit any commentators who can plausibly be presented as experts on the issue of the day. These media have an insatiable appetite for nonstop supplies of visually engaging 鈥渃ontent,鈥 even if the nominal experts they interview lack pertinent knowledge and are biased. Moreover, some certified experts are prepared to make on-air predictions without applying the standards of evidence and precision they would adhere to in their published research. To an uncomfortable degree, the authority of experts has been compromised by the allure of celebrity.

This kind of conduct is quite common in many professions, but it can be especially damaging when natural scientists engage in it. Graphic evidence comes from Merchants of Doubt, a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. During the 1990s, a handful of scientists played a major part in the political assault on climate research by challenging climatologists鈥 warnings about the reality of global warming. These media attacks were carried out largely under the auspices of newly-organized think tanks established with the financial backing of conservative billionaires and U.S. energy corporations鈥揺ven though the companies鈥 own in-house researchers had already reported privately that climate change was real. (Oreskes and Conway 2010; Coll 2012, Ch. 3; Hoyt 2019, Ch. 1)

An important actor in this public-relations offensive was the late Frederick Seitz, a former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Seitz was a distinguished solid-state physicist who had helped build the first atomic bomb, but he had no expertise in climatology. Nonetheless, he was prepared to use his public prestige to dispute the mounting evidence of global warming revealed by climate researchers, just as he had earlier helped the tobacco industry counter claims that smoking causes cancer. Even if Seitz鈥檚 statements about climate change were made in good faith, they were irresponsible, because they extended far beyond the boundaries of his professional expertise. Partly due to such behavior, by the end of the 1990s, a political issue that had initially seemed increasingly clear was frozen into a polarized stand-off generated by a concerted campaign to sow public confusion about the relevant climatological research. The watchword had become 鈥渦ncertainty.鈥 It was not necessary to demonstrate that climate science was wrong鈥攐nly to contend that it was unclear because some outspoken scientists disagreed with it and a scientific consensus purportedly did not exist. Marginal uncertainty among knowledgeable scientists was amplified into an impassable political excuse for inaction.

This episode illustrates the need for strict ethical guidelines and self-policing by scholars to ensure that scientific credentials established in one field of research are not misused to distort or suppress the findings of another. The problem is especially severe in non-scholarly media, which lack the safeguard of pre-publication review by scientific peers but are frequently cited in political debates as authoritative. This situation poses a thorny professional challenge for universities and colleges, which are rightly committed to protecting scholars鈥 freedom to express whatever views they think are true. It also raises important questions about whether academic and government researchers should always adopt a stance of studied scientific neutrality or should sometimes champion the public policies they believe their research warrants for the sake of avoiding future dangers to society.

What Now?

What is to be done? The arrival of the American mega-crisis poses an extraordinary challenge for intellectuals and scholars, as well as for political leaders, business officials, and ordinary citizens. To respond to that challenge, each of us must engage in a deepened process of personal reevaluation and personal commitment. Above all, intellectuals and scholars must pursue fuller understanding of the unfolding crisis. But we must also engage in sustained social and political action based on our investigations. If ever there was a moment to step beyond cool detachment and sound the tocsin, this is it. In the words of the great historian William H. McNeill, 鈥渨here to fix one鈥檚 loyalties is the supreme question of human life.鈥

That question now confronts all Americans, and the answers we give will determine our country鈥檚 future, and the future of other countries as well. We have drifted into a massive national crisis that we cannot 鈥渨aste鈥 by failing to confront its severity. We have arrived at a pivotal historical moment in which a recasting of American views about national politics and priorities is urgently necessary.

At every level of society, more openness and mutual learning are required. Since the early days of the American republic, there has been a persistent tension between the notion of elite wisdom and the idea that all citizens are equal. Today we must revisit this issue in a creative spirit. On the one hand, we must counteract the destructive effects of social ignorance and dismissive attitudes toward science and government. On the other hand, we must formulate a more sophisticated appreciation of elite authority which acknowledges both the importance of experts and the disagreements that sometimes divide them. Collectively, we must transcend the limits on the capacity of any single individual to fathom the multiple dimensions of truth. As responsible Americans who recognize our bonds with other human beings, not only inside our country but in the world at large, this is an effort we must not refuse to make.


I am grateful to Ira Katznelson, Kenneth Keller, Barbara Chotiner, Thane Gustafson, and Jay Fahn for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this article.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Bruce Parrott

Parrott鈥檚 books include Politics and Technology in the Soviet Union, The Soviet Union and Ballistic Missile Defense, Russia and the New States of Eurasia: The Politics of Upheaval (with Karen Dawisha), and Becoming a Social-Science Researcher: An Existential Guide (forthcoming). He is writing a book about the U.S. mega-crisis.


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