Has America Become Weak and Sniveling?

Kevin Drum

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One of the things the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted is the American public’s unwillingness these days to see a fight through. Consider:

  • After only a few weeks of lockdowns, Americans seem barely willing to continue fighting COVID-19.
  • After the financial crash, Americans were willing to support only a half-baked stimulus, and for less than a year, before they panicked over the national debt and supported it no longer.
  • Americans gave up on the Iraq War very quickly after not winning an instant victory. By 2004 even supporters had gotten tired of it.

All of these things have a political valence to them. Conservatives fought the stimulus from the beginning and lockdowns within a few weeks. Liberals mostly opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. This obviously makes it way harder to demand sacrifices from the public for a long period.

This is hardly unique to Americans and hardly unique to politically volatile topics. Still, it’s hard not to think that it’s getting worse—both because Americans are too comfortable and partisan polarity has become so pervasive. It took many years for people to get tired of, for example, World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Probably not coincidentally, all three had broad bipartisan support among the mainstream.

Asking for sacrifice is always hard, but you’d think that something like a deadly pandemic would finally be enough to do it. Surely for a few months at least. But after it was inexplicably turned into a partisan affair, half the country started to turn against it despite overwhelming evidence from around the world about what needed to be done.

It’s hard to think of anything less inherently partisan than a pandemic. It’s also hard to think of anything better suited to a purely expert response. And yet experts are mostly used as props by the White House and the response has become almost comically partisan.

Is there anything left that would bring liberals and conservatives together to demand some kind of sacrifice from the American public? And even if that happened, would the public respond? I’m starting to wonder.

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