It should be obvious by now that we are at an inflection point in our country’s history. The multiple crises affecting our country could potentially usher in a new direction, one rooted in radical democracy and an equitable economy, or we can watch as decades of neoliberal ideology become further entrenched to the point that we risk a wholesale collapse.
In times of enormous stress, we need a commonsense response. Famed cultural critic Stuart Hall wrote about common sense as “a form of ‘everyday thinking’ which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world.” But you don’t need to rely on cultural theory. Back in 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet advocating for the American revolution. The title he chose was Common Sense.
We look around us, and we know that we need trillions of dollars in disaster spending, free and easy access to health care and testing, and protection from losing our homes because of a pandemic.
Can we mobilize on this common sense—ideas that even Trump-era Republicans have acquiesced to—and build a narrative framework that we can use as an onramp to radical democratic change down the road?
The metanarrative we have faced has been set for decades. Government, we are told, is inefficient and wasteful; competition and markets are the answer. Above all, the individual reigns supreme. These ideas are mixed in with racism and xenophobia to create a toxic stew that nourishes the idea that some people are “undeserving” of dignity and access to the means of meeting their basic needs.
Fortunately, a counternarrative has begun to coalesce—one that argues for radical, structural inclusion; for a society that understands that we are linked to each other through our families, communities, and social institutions; for a participatory and active democracy; for public and cooperatively owned systems that serve the common good; and a positive idea of freedom rooted in community, justice, and shared power.
We can use our common values to rearticulate the narrative in a new way. What are those values? Freedom, opportunity, responsibility, and cooperation. These ideals are bred in the American bone, and if we can seize them and make them work for us, we have an opportunity to shift our worldview, and therefore shift our world.
Let’s say what we mean about these often loosely used words. “Freedom” is about living in security, free from discrimination, and being able to reach our individual and collective potential. “Opportunity” is about having a truly democratic and fair government that gives everyone an equal chance to succeed and ensures equitable outcomes. “Responsibility” is about our shared responsibility to each other, our community, and our planet. “Cooperation” means having an open-minded, empathetic connection to one another.
So how can we use this framework? COVID-19 has laid bare many fallacies. These fissures have only been more exposed by the multiple incidents of anti-Black violence, such as the police murder of George Floyd, that have unleashed a nationwide wave of protests. Our government cannot—or chooses not to—meet our needs on the most basic level. The economy is in a death spiral and corporations are desperate for handouts. Market fundamentalism has been revealed to be a fraudulent exercise in cutting public programs that support families and small businesses in order to steer government resources toward policing, corporations, and the top one percent.
We need a path forward. For too many years, the government solution to problems has meant technocratic programs predicated on the idea that people in need were passive beneficiaries. The right wants to starve those programs, whereas the left pushes for more robust aid. But because of this crisis, we see people leaning into mutual aid and solidarity to find solutions in terrible circumstances, standing up to help their family, their friends, and their neighbors. So, how might we design a truly democratic response? What would a democratization of power look like?
The next step is to follow up on the radical measures the government has taken—and seize the policy window that has opened before it shuts. If everyone should have free access to COVID-19 care and testing, why shouldn’t everyone who is sick have free access to care for all their medical needs? If no one should lose their home over the pandemic, why shouldn’t everyone have a home? If government checks for all makes sense now, why not guarantee a universal basic income? If we can empty our prisons now without it harming our communities, why not end mass incarceration for good?
As we push for policy, we must place these ideas within our broader value system. Medicare for All is excellent policy, but, more importantly, it is part of a larger worldview in which everyone gets the care they need.
While it is important to recognize how dire the situation is and could be, from a framing perspective, it is critical to focus on the common good: how we can and will take care of everyone.
We are all part of a larger community, and our health and well-being are intertwined. While our problems can seem overwhelming, we can find solutions if we work together and refuse to fall back on fear. Fear leads to racism and xenophobia, but the answer is everything we are fighting for: love, connection, and an equitable path forward.