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Curing America's pre-existing condition

Melinda Crane
Melinda Crane
May 17, 2020

Donald Trump's lies during the coronavirus crisis are so egregious that it's tempting to blame him for the toll on life and the economy. But the structural vulnerabilities go back 40 years, writes Melinda Crane.

A homeless individual wearing a mask sits atop a trash can in Philadelphia
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/C. Clark

"Structural vulnerabilities" sound dry, so let's put a face on them: These are families in their cars waiting in a food bank line that stretches for miles. This is the unemployed mother whose military widow's pension is too meager to feed three children. This is the stretcher-bearer denied adequate protective gear because there was not enough to go around.

These faces are visible now, as the coronavirus crisis thrusts them into the spotlight. But their situation is not new. Countless authors have called attention to structural problems such as glaring inequality, winner-takes-all capitalism and money-choked politics. Numerous politicians — including the most recent Democratic candidates for president — have outlined solutions. I will focus here on just one issue: the precarious situation of the middle class, which has resulted from a program of tax reductions, deregulation and welfare cutbacks that redistribute neither the gains that accrue at the top of the social pyramid nor the risks faced by those lower down.

Read the latest coverage on the worldwide coronavirus pandemic

Germany as a role model?

What needs to be done is no secret — not least because other nations are doing it. As a young journalist in 1993, I spent months researching Germany's "social market economy" model for a US public television documentary by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Hedrick Smith. I will never forget the American production team doing a double take as Berthold Leibinger, the legendary CEO of German work tools maker Trumpf, explained why a model that might look socialistic to many Americans made good business sense: both societal and corporate resilience were enhanced, he said, by universal health care and by systems such as "Mitbestimmung," which  gives workers a say in management decisions; "Kurzarbeit," which ensures workers remain on a firm's payroll even in a downturn; and the "Duale Ausbildung" program of vocational training and apprenticeships.

DW's Melinda Crane
DW's Melinda Crane

The documentary was entitled Challenge to America. It concluded that the US could learn from the German commitment to sustaining social stability. By the time the film aired, the challenge appeared moot: Germany had slipped into a deep, post-reunification recession. It was not until the financial crisis of 2008 that "Kurzarbeit" once again drew trans-Atlantic attention as a means of cushioning the social impact of economic volatility.

The disparity between American and German capitalism is not the product of inevitable cultural differences but of political choices. The US has historical narratives — from the Puritans' "city on a hill" [refers to a community that others will look up to — the ed.] to Franklin D. Roosevelt's "economic bill of rights" — that could serve as the foundation for a uniquely American social market economy. These narratives, however, have been distorted and instrumentalized in the service of a neoliberal agenda that benefits powerful interests.

Tackling the challenge

Will this latest "challenge to America" revitalize a sense of social stability as a common good? The answer depends on whether the impetus for change can transcend polarization. Remember "Yes we can?" The wake-up call that sounded during the financial crisis in 2008 prompted the election of Barack Obama, who pushed through key political reforms. But most of these have been undone in whole or in part. Not least due to partisan media like Fox news, polarization has become a black hole that swallows up every political initiative that gets near.

The coronavirus crisis reveals not only the structural disparities between the US and German systems, but also a related difference in levels of trust. While a broad majority of Germans approve of their government's response, partisanship colors Americans' views on nearly every aspect of the pandemic and how it's being handled, with zero-sum thinking sparking outrage about federal assistance going to unworthy recipients.

Such attitudes reflect a vicious circle that is undermining US democracy from within: As the state retreats and people no longer feel its stabilizing value in their own lives, their confidence in it dwindles. But to stand the famous quip by Ronald Reagan on its head: Government is not THE problem, and it MUST be part of the solution.

The US knows what needs to be done. Can it make it happen? 

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