America faces three crises: racism, virus, authoritarian rule

The U.S. now stands at an historic moment.

Three major issues, cutting to the core of the country, are at stake.

From the arrival of the first African slaves four centuries ago, Americans have grappled unsuccessfully with relations between the black and white races. Neither the Civil War nor the civil rights movement produced a resolution of what must be recognized as the most significant issue in this country.

It seemed for a moment that the election of Barack Obama as president represented a declaration that the country would treat all people equally and assure them of equal freedom. Still, Obama did not garner the support of a majority of white voters.

Obama’s election served as notice that the country was changing and that traditional government by a white majority would soon give way to government chosen by a non-white majority. This is not a devious “replacement” plot; it is simple fact. But some people fight the change, however futile that proves to be.

Such people attack words and actions they label as “political correctness.” They disdain efforts to eliminate inequality. “Correctness” is correct, but they sneer at it as being merely “political.”

Opponents of change flaunt their firearms, talking sometimes as though they were ready for armed rebellion against a government imposing a new order that threatens their freedom, even their freedom to discriminate.

Some police, armed with weapons, power and political forbearance, express the anger or frustration of the opponents of change. They abuse their power, because they can get away with it.

The repeated killing of African-Americans by police is evidence that the issue of race in America, the focus of public controversy from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the trumpeting of “law and order” at the White House in 2020, remains the central American crisis.

The latest explosion of racism and reaction, seemingly beyond solution, comes just at the time of Covid-19, a dangerous and killing virus that also seems beyond solution, at least for now.

This unseen threat not only kills its vulnerable victims, but threatens the basic economy essential for an acceptable standard of living. The need to balance public health with efforts to manage a functioning economy has produced sharply conflicting responses. We may know what we should do to halt racism; here we do not know what to do.

Some want to return to an earlier way of life, before the virus arrived. Strip off masks, hug your friends, go watch the game. In short, have fun and make money. The spread of the disease is a price worth paying to regain quickly full personal freedom.

Even without a cure or a vaccine, Covid-19 can be controlled by concerted and cooperative action to reduce its spread. That would work, but self indulgence, trading restraint for short-term satisfaction, makes it impossible.

The world looks for cooperation and sustained efforts to stop the spread. But that is lacking. Danger and dying continue. People must live through one of the worst worldwide plagues, fumbling to find a strong response while being reduced to hoping for science to find a cure.

The third issue is the fate of the political system itself.

The founders of the American republic created a well-reasoned, even brilliant system. The people would be sovereign, but they would act through legislators, executives and judges. Power would be diffused to avoid the excesses of royal rule. Customary practices were embedded in the system to assure a functioning democracy.

In recent years, the assumptions about American government have come into question. Democracy is intentionally inefficient, making it difficult for government to exercise dictatorial powers. Authoritarian leaders may get things done, but that requires overruling the historic understandings that make American democracy work.

Other countries adopted the progressive principles of the new American republic. Now, governments abroad also face pressures to become more authoritarian. The U.S. is not alone.

Some see Donald Trump as the problem. Get rid of him, they believe, and the traditional republic will be restored. That view ignores those of his supporters who favor authoritarian government and whose cause he has adopted for his political advantage. Even without Trump, the issue would remain. The country is divided.

These three issues are intertwined. They are fundamental and resist resolution. The possibility that we will solve them may even seem to be slipping away. Is “1984,” George Orwell’s cautionary novel about a desolate, authoritarian world, really about a date in the near future?

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., all it takes for these issues to resolve themselves badly is for good people to do nothing.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.