Politics in a Time of Plague

I hope this post finds all of you healthy and safe. It’s been a terrible month, more than a month, for so many people.

The New York Review of Books asked me to write something about pandemics and politics. How, they asked me to consider, is it possible to do democracy under quarantine?

I decided to flip the question. Much of what is called democracy, after all, presumes the quarantine of vast parts of the citizenry, that they be kept isolated, politically if not physically.

So the real question, it seems to me, is how have isolated and separated men and women, often under great duress, nevertheless managed to create democracy over the ages?

That’s what I wrote about here, with a little help from Frederick Douglass, Betty Friedan, Primo Levi, and the best of the best: Frances Fox Piven. Here’s a small excerpt:

When people express concern about the consequences of pandemic politics for democracy, they are thinking of a fairly familiar, and limited, repertoire of activities—voting, primaries, conventions, marching in the streets. But the counter-tradition of inauspicious democracy teaches us that the world of established institutions and familiar tactics, even if those tactics once belonged to protest movements past, is not the only place to look for democracy. It presses us instead to look at those networks of interdependency that Piven spoke of, to see how subordinate classes might use as leverage the dependence of their superiors (and society) upon these subordinates, to bring about a greater democratization of the whole.

Isolation, it has been pointed out, is a luxury many men and women in the United States cannot now afford and will probably never enjoy. For many in the working class, and some in the professional classes, there is no withdrawal from public spaces to a place of greater safety at home. These men and women are picking lettuce, boxing groceries, delivering packages, driving buses and trains, riding buses and trains, filling prescriptions, operating registers, caring for the elderly, taking care of the sick, burying the dead. Though these disparities understandably arouse a sense of deep unease, and guilt among those who are their beneficiary, there is a dimension to this inequity that has gone overlooked. The state designates these men and women to be “essential workers,” and while that designation has earned those workers little more than a patronizing thanks for their “selflessness” from President ObamaMayor Bloomberg, and other worthies, the designation is nonetheless a recognition of their potential power right now. Power that some have begun to wield.

You can read the rest here.

A couple of months ago, I wrote another piece for the New York Review of Books website. It seems like from another world. But it was about the Iowa Caucuses and what they mean for democracy. I don’t think I ever posted about that piece here, so I am now.

I’ve got two more pieces coming out in the coming weeks/months: a long essay on American communism, which doubles as a review of Vivian Gornick’s Romance of American Communism and Jodi Dean’s Comrade; and another long essay on Max Weber. I’ll post them here when they do.

To everyone who’s reading: I hope that if you are healthy, you stay healthy, and that if you’re sick, you get better.


  1. Jeff Poggi April 13, 2020 at 4:51 pm | #

    Thanks, Corey. Stay safe.

  2. jonnybutter April 13, 2020 at 5:19 pm | #

    Beautiful essay about democracy and isolation. One thing I didn’t understand in the IA one was: “[Keyssar had] thought of [the Electoral College] simply as a “device for aggregating” the popular vote.” It seems strange that a serious scholar would think that. One wants to ask him: why not aggregate the popular vote by..simply counting it? Why a device at all?

    I assume no news is good news regarding you and your family. I’m always glad to learn that someone is doing OK during this, but of course there’s no happiness – so heartbroken about the rest.

    be well. Thanks for the good and timely reads.

    • Corey Robin April 14, 2020 at 3:43 pm | #

      We’re all safe, thanks. In answer to your question, I think Keyssar’s statement reflects the fact that for over a century, it simply hadn’t mattered that there was an Electoral College (except for the two times when it almost did, but, and this is another point I make in the piece, I think the Cold War really shielded anyone from a sense that this could ever happen). So I think the fact that it didn’t matter for over a century, and the Cold War, could produce a sense that all the EC does is aggregate the vote. Clearly it’s not true, but I think we have to put ourselves back in the mindset of the 20th century. I mean, worrying about someone losing the popular vote but winning the election—that almost seemed like you wanted to be back on the Gold Standard or something. It just seemed to reflect someone caught in another time.

      • jonnybutter April 15, 2020 at 6:08 am | #

        Glad to hear all are well in your family. I have family there and worry about them all the time.

        I guess I’m doing an anachronism my own self here. I didn’t think about the EC during the Cold War either – nobody did. However, if you do think about it at all, though, like an historian or political scientist would, it doesn’t make sense – why the extra step? It’s like when Trump or some other liar says ‘quite frankly’ – it’s extra waddage that has some function other than the obvious one. Not to throw rocks at Keyssar – I haven’t read his book on the EC but he clearly tried to make up for it!

        I guess these big crises can anesthetize us a little intellectually, with their brutal prioritizing. Cortizol is a hell of a drug.

  3. Chris Morlock April 13, 2020 at 5:58 pm | #

    Commenting on the validity of “essential” as a euphemism for “you will work under dangerous conditions for not much” is apt, but only the tip of the iceberg. The CARES act is the biggest single corporate fascist takeover in history, worse than the TARP program or any other by a factor of 10. This is a catastrophe for working people not seen since the original development of the neoliberal ethos and it’s enshrinement in power in the 80’s.

    Yet there is almost nothing written about it, or about what will come. As we approach 20-30% unemployment in the next few weeks, the next step is for mass evictions and defaults. Corporations now have a nearly unlimited amount of free printed money to swoop in and buy everything, just like they did in 2008 but on a much more massive scale. The consolidation in 2020 will be total.

    Meanwhile, our progressive politicians totally fell apart. Sanders capitulated and then lied about his involvement with some minor concessions obtained by Bennet, and even then were not much to speak of. Another fake review panel? It’s almost unspeakable how bad the American Left acted in this crisis. A tailor made opportunity to seize power, call for mass strikes, and create real and meaningful structural change. Instead AOC grandstands while most likely voting for the bill and then lawyering a response as to how she voted.

    This is the darkest time in history for the American Left and labor that I can see.

    • Benjamin David Steele April 14, 2020 at 12:13 pm | #

      Unemployment looks worse when you separate it by income and wealth. Among the lower class and lower middle class, more than half of that population is already out of work. But it will surely grow worse the longer this lasts.

      I’m curious to hear you elaborate on the last part of your comment. What was Sander’s capitulation and lie? What were Bennet’s minor concessions? I haven’t been following this and so am unfamiliar with the dealings.

      • Chris Morlock April 14, 2020 at 7:13 pm | #

        Sanders and other progressive leaders took credit for parts of the “concessions” that the Dems obtained from the Republican bill. The Republicans wanted to give Mnuchin nearly unilateral power to pick and choose corporate welfare recipients, and essentially award almost any amount of printed money in secret. After the Dems announced that they had gotten another “fluff” 5 person panel to “oversee” the administration, Sanders and others took credit for this concession along with the unemployment and eligibility (gig workers).

        I worked on the Sanders campaign and received many emails about how Bernie had basically gotten this for “us”. This was a ball faced lie. Michael Bennet wrote these items into the bill.

        It’s looking more and more like Bernie, AOC, the squad etc. didn’t even know what was in the 800 page bill. As the realization sets in, progressive politicians scramble to distance themselves from their actions. Pelosi designing the “no recorded vote” allows them to do such, which was a get out jail free card. We needed strong opposition immediately, instead we got capitulation.

        The CARES act represents the worst slide to the right in modern American history. It’s far more of a blow than any Fed Judiciary appointments, tax cuts, etc. It makes socialism, universal healthcare, and any sanity difficult or impossible for another generation. The entire American Left completely sold out, panic induced or not.

        • Benjamin David Steele April 14, 2020 at 9:04 pm | #

          Has there been any good reporting on this yet?

          • Chris Morlock April 14, 2020 at 10:59 pm | #

            Check out analysis from Ryan Grimm, Glen Greenwald, political economist Mark Blythe, Matt Stoller, and Dylan Ratigan. There is also a new article today in the Jacobin by Noam Chompsky.

            When you print money and give it to the worst people and corporations on earth without any meaningful restrictions they usually act in the worst possible ways. That includes another large transfer of wealth from working people upwards, just like 2008. Except far far worse.

  4. Constance Gemson May 7, 2020 at 3:31 pm | #

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay about CUNY. I appreciate your analysis.

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