Pandemic can unite the generations out of necessity
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The new coronavirus pandemic, when we figure out how to treat it with medications and how to prevent it with a vaccine, has the potential to unite generations in the United States in what can be a new era of American politics and American history overall.
The American men and women who did what was needed to be done during World War II (and grew up during the Great Depression) in cooperation with Great Britain and the Soviet Union and other allies — and their children who came of age in the 1940s (the baby boomers) and made lives for themselves in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond — had a sense of unity that none of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s and after have had. That sense of unity also was threaded through the country as we fought the Cold War.
The final stage of the baby boomers, Generation X, the millennials, Generation Y — none of us who followed the generation that fought in World War II and built the airplanes, tanks and jeeps have the firm foundation our parents and grandparents had. We also have lived through decades of fierce debate over the nature and extent of the welfare state.
Time has moved more swiftly in the last 50 years than in previous half century periods of time as science, technology and industry have advanced, notably the onset of the information age itself. Compare the developments in the world from 1970 to 2020 with the developments in the world from 1200 to 1250 or 1500 to 1550 or 1850 to 1900.
Those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s have seen a return to conservative economics, the dot-com boom and a burst of globalization, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008-09 and the Great Recession, the election of the first black president, the election of the most divisive president in our history, the rise of new medicines to treat and cure diseases, and great struggles and gains by women, African Americans and the LGBT community. Moreover, with the rise of the internet and social media, we are more aware of changes that are occurring than Americans were in previous time periods.
The young people who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s studied World War II and heard stories about it from their parents, but they grew up with Watergate, the end of Vietnam, economic malaise and President Jimmy Carter.
The young people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s saw the Cold War end and a backlash against victories being won by women and blacks in the workplace and education. This backlash planted the seeds for what would ultimately be a major domestic battle between the tea party and the political right and a resurgent political left by 2010 following the economic crash in 2008-09.
The young people who grew up in the early 2000s were overwhelmed by 9/11 and the threat of terrorism from radical Muslims. For a time there was a surge of patriotism in the United States, but fear and anger were as much a part of the patriotic sentiment as positive feelings of national unity and common purpose.
Today, we have a crisis — actually the whole world has a crisis — that has the capacity to unite us. Global warming auditioned for this role, but because the harm is not immediately visible it has lacked the power to unite us here in the United States and worldwide. The coronavirus crisis will not erase party lines, but it could make us all see ourselves, our country and the world in a different way. This pandemic is our World War II because it can make us feel like a country that must work together to survive.
This is our cause, this is our challenge, this is our chance to not only defeat this enemy but to craft a new politics for our future.
This new politics must leverage the uncertainty and vulnerability we are all feeling now while we are on lockdown to create bipartisan solutions to our most pressing problems after our country, one step at a time, is opened again for commerce and social interactions. Ironically, it is only with a threat to our country on the current scale that we could find a way to unite the diverse generations that make up our country. This could happen, but it might not. The unity will not arise by itself and it is not present at this moment.
We as Americans must show a concerted effort to build that unity, even as we recognize political differences that will continue to exist between us. Politics will not go away, but the hostility, polarization and lack of respect for the other side could go away. The four stimulus bills and the 7 p.m. nightly applause in New York City for the first responders and hospital workers is anecdotal evidence that this sense of unity is possible.
Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework.”