By Pam Campos-Palma
In less than one month, the Democratic presidential field and our global security have simultaneously collapsed in what feels like an eerie manifestation of our political realities in the United States. We’re now down to two candidates for the Democratic nomination who could not be more different in their political visions and approach, and we face a growing pandemic that is forcing everyone to confront how interconnected we are across borders and how dangerous the systemic failures progressives have long been decrying really are. Progressive foreign and security policies are often falsely portrayed as distinct from traditional approaches only in overall philosophy, but COVID-19 offers a broad-based and alarming example of the vast differences between the two in nitty-gritty, ground-level policy implementation.
In this crisis, progressive approaches seek to care for people first at every opportunity, while traditional approaches focus first on preserving the broken structures that endangered us in the first place.
While the last three years under Trump have been a horrific roller coaster, the last few weeks have been the most agonizing time warp thus far. It’s mystifying to realize that Super Tuesday, when moderate Democrats fell in lockstep behind Joe Biden, was a mere 27 days ago. Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign two days later, to the pronounced heartbreak of her broad base, leaving the race for the Democratic nomination down to two candidates who represent opposing poles within the party: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Then, just as it reached its crescendo, the primary fell out of the public consciousness entirely, supplanted by the global COVID-19 crisis.
Coronavirus is now the dominant issue in the world, and therefore the US presidential race. The pandemic is estimated to kill millions worldwide, and it’s clear that mismanagement of our society, institutions, and economy have compounded the crisis at home and abroad. Our response to COVID-19, both short-term and long-term, will shape our democracy, international relations, and economy going forward and will go a long way toward deciding who survives the coming weeks and years.
So far, the candidates’ reactions to COVID-19 have diverged remarkably along ideological lines. Even their campaign strategies for coping with the virus are different, and reflect their institutional commitments. Although it took place in the distant past — two weeks ago — it’s worth remembering the March 17th primary chaos as COVID-19 infections were accelerating. Bernie’s camp adamantly pushed for all primaries to be postponed to avoid risking voters’ and poll workers’ health, while the Biden camp took a different tone, cautiously encouraging voters to turn out and avoiding calls for postponement. As the candidates figure out how to campaign while practicing physical distancing, we’re likely to get more opportunities to see whether candidates respond to uncertainty by clinging to mediocre half-steps or demanding innovative responses.
The same distinctions extend to security policy. In the last debate, Sanders and Biden were asked about mobilizing the military to deal with coronavirus. While both candidates agreed the military could play a role domestically, the differences in their answers were glaring. Sanders spoke as someone who has internalized one of the hard-learned lessons of post-9/11 America: not every crisis response should center the military. Biden, conversely, went out of his way to present a military response as the gold standard of efficiency and strength. We know that militarized crisis management too often fails to set such a standard, and instead tumbles into slippery slopes that hurt those in and out of uniform. Biden comparing COVID-19 to a war, while simultaneously opposing fundamental reforms like Medicare For All that would actually protect people in a public health crisis, feels uncomfortably similar to Global War On Terror cheerleaders eschewing real investments in the diplomatic corps and development tools in the wake of 9/11 in favor of the militarized approach that was ultimately adopted, an approach that had immediate and disastrous consequences.
Coronavirus is forcing a broader segment of the population to confront everyday realities many Americans faced even before the pandemic, like managing without basic necessities, being abruptly unemployed and uninsured, or facing other forms of financial jeopardy. As understanding of our shared precarity spreads, the very popular, progressive solutions previously deemed “too radical” are proving to be precisely the nation-saving policies we need. Other countries are assertively implementing transformative economic and social mechanisms to protect their populations, but many career politicians in the United States continue to fumble and split hairs on bold interventions. They are putting lives at greater risk out of refusal to concede to progressive ideas that contradict sacred corporatist traditions that put profits over people.
Status quo timidity will not be reciprocated by the far right. As coronavirus continues to showcase the fragility of our systems, another threat on the horizon is the weaponization of this crisis to dismantle civil liberties, further enshrine xenophobic hate in policy, and potentially misuse the military — all of which would be used in service of Trump’s reelection. Even in this initial stage of the crisis, this administration has already leveraged its powers to push more militarization at the border and rhetoric against asylum seekers, slap more sanctions on Iran, and pursue permission to indefinitely detain people without trial. What we’re seeing is a perfect storm for right wing nationalists to cohere their xenophobic narratives and fear-stoking agenda into concrete policy victories. In a time of crisis, the far right can win if status quo Democrats continue to flail and play reductionist games and if the left gives up the fight within the Democratic party, surrendering response entirely to leadership most out-of-step with the suffering base.
Tackling a deadly pandemic requires rigorous, responsible, and coherent international cooperation and the Trump administration’s embarrassing abdication of leadership on the world stage has created tall barriers to meeting that requirement. In the face of the administration’s thuggish, isolationist antagonism, the intellectual foreign policy establishment has not meaningfully intervened or adapted. There has been little action, for example, to roll back US sanctions that are crushing people’s ability to protect against the coronavirus in places like Iran. Instead, we’ve been treated to more lazy, circular “Great Power Competition” conversations that reinforce racist political frameworks. Un-nuanced obsession with competition continues to be completely counterproductive in a moment when an unprecedented global emergency requires international cooperation, but it is the obsession the elite “experts” we’re supposed to rely on to guide our foreign policy have chosen to indulge.
Crises create opportunities for us to lead, together. And opportunities abound for Democrats to demonstrate real vision, accountable values, and bold solidarity in their COVID-19 response. I hope Joe Biden dumps his tone deaf tagline, “people are not looking for a revolution, they want results.” Wrong. If this dangerous moment shows us anything, it’s that we need both, and we won’t get one without the other. We must be unafraid to seize the moment to build the world we seek with integrity and dignity.
Pam Campos-Palma is a political strategist, advisor and organizer focused on peace & security. She served in the US Air Force for over a decade as an operations intelligence analyst and is a trusted leader and advocate bridging grasstops policy and grassroots movement worlds. You can find her on twitter at @_pamcampos.