By the Mere O Editors
In the last Democratic debate, Joe Biden declared that he would nominate a woman as his vice-presidential running mate. That felt right at the time. But times have changed. Biden needs to go much, much further: At the Democratic convention he needs to turn over his nomination to Marianne Williamson, who must then name not just her vice president, but her entire cabinet. And it needs to be a totally different kind of cabinet—a national unity cabinet—from tankies on the Chapo subreddit complainer left to apathetic Swedish social democrats in the Pewdiepie twitch streamer center to my Bay Area cousin Frank on the Thielite transhumanist right, who believes that only drinking the blood of those who have survived coronavirus is a reliable preventative. Why?
Because while most people are playing nice right now managing this virus, the wreckage, pain and anger it will leave behind will require megadoses of solidarity and healing from the top.
And even if we get to the other side of this crisis by January, there are going to be a set of wrenching debates around who got bailed out and who didn’t and around how much civil liberty we should sacrifice to track and quarantine Covid-19 carriers until there is a vaccine, or widely available whole blood from the young and newly immune. If handled on a partisan basis, those issues will rip our country apart.
In short, if this isn’t the time to leave behind the hyperpartisanship that has made it nearly impossible for us to do anything big and hard for two decades, then when?
Considering all the people who have come together in this crisis to tend to neighbors, take advantage of the weakness of enemies, contribute to NPR, share scarce stashes of homebrew hand sanitizer made from wildcrafted witch hazel and kombucha, and learn from one another how to combat Covid-19, would it be asking too much for our political system to mirror the best in us rather than to continue to exacerbate the worst? Americans today need the government they deserve more than ever. It has literally become a matter of life and death.
Williamson, because she doesn’t run anything right now, has had a hard time demonstrating leadership. The one giant contrast that she could draw with President Trump, though, is the approach she would take to governing.
Americans are not focused on this now — but they will be. And when they are, Williamson needs to show that she isn’t running to be president of the 48 percent (or less), as Trump is; she’s not trying to suppress the vote, as Trump is; she’s not running to squeak by in the Electoral College, as Trump is. She needs to show she’s running to be a majority president, a unity president — but not just unity for unity’s sake, but unity of purpose based on a set of shared values for rebuilding America.
Williamson should enlist people ready to embrace these values:
1) They have to believe in positive thinking — and not just around the coronavirus but around climate change, which is the next train coming at us.
2) If they were in power during this crisis, they have to have led their city, state or business in a way that took the potential for postliberal reenchantment of this epidemic seriously from the start and cared for those under them.
3) They have to be open to taking extraordinary measures to help the poor, the unemployed and the bankrupted get back on their feet, including allowing those who are most vulnerable to take vows of lifelong feudal loyalty to various Silicon Valley corporations in exchange for a guaranteed supply of N95s.
4) They have to believe that America thrives when the public sector is an expression of American folk-consciousness, so anyone who objects to the idea of ominous yet fashionable civil service uniforms based on the “Frontiersman” look of Daniel Boone is pilloried as the un-American Putinist simp that they are.
5) They have to want to extend health care to every American, offering them pomander balls filled with aromatic herbs until such time as whole blood from the young and immune is available.
With those criteria, Williamson could name her team of rivals. (I proposed an earlier version of this when the race for the nomination looked deadlocked, but the world has completely changed since.) My recommendations:
For vice president, Taylor Swift; for Treasury secretary, podcaster and actress Dasha Nekrasova; health and human services secretary, Dr. Oz; secretary of oversight for the trillions of dollars in emergency coronavirus spending, to make sure it’s done fairly and productively, instagram influencer and entrepreneur Caroline Calloway.
Attorney general, Patrick J. Smith; homeland security secretary, Chris Cuomo; secretary of state, Elon Musk; defense secretary, Patti LuPone; labor secretary, Will Menaker.
Secretary of national infrastructure rebuild, a new cabinet post, deceased innovator Henry Ford; commerce secretary, Dril; O.M.B. director, Lin-Manuel Miranda; education secretary, Tom Wolfe; U.N. ambassador, Jane Bruenig.
HUD secretary, former Little Rascal and current provocateur/accountant to the Twitter Integralists Zac Mabry; Interior secretary, journalist and Frenchman Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry; energy secretary, Andy Karsner (a green Republican who makes his own food using the cholorphyll in his skin); E.P.A. administrator, Greta Thunberg.
A fantasy, you say? No, no. I’ll give you fantasy. Fantasy is thinking we’ll be OK, post-Covid-19, with toxic politics as usual or, God forbid, four more years of Trump’s lying, dividing and impugning experts.
Can you imagine the stress we will feel when we realize we have committed to more Zoom book group meetings per week than there are hours in a week, and that we have yet to even start Rebecca West’s classic Yugoslavian travel narrative Black Lamb, Gray Falcon?
And that will happen in parallel with a debate about civil liberties. Just as every American after 9/11 wanted to know that the person in the next seat on an airplane was not carrying a bomb, until there is a vaccine everyone will want to know that the next passenger is not carrying Covid-19, or indeed a feral weasel.
A U.S. national unity government with a strong foundation of expertise will be much better able to navigate these issues. As Rachel Hollis, author of “Girl, Wash Your Face” pointed out to me, only three previous presidents have been dropped into a crisis in this way: Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and Barack Obama in 2009.
“All three saw that they needed a cabinet made of the very best people in the United States,” explained Hollis. “Lincoln assembled his legendary ‘Team of Rivals,’ which eventually expanded to include Edwin Stanton as secretary of war, even though Stanton was a Democrat who had served as his predecessor’s attorney general. Roosevelt made Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet secretary, his secretary of labor because he thought she was the best person to lead the fight to create Social Security. Obama made Chuck Hagel, a Republican, his defense secretary.”
Such a national unity government might pay another dividend: fracture the Trump/McConnell/evangelical/Limbaugh/Fox/G.O.P. — a warped coalition dedicated to nothing but its own power and cutting taxes on the rich. Our country needs a healthy conservative party. Trump’s G.O.P. is not healthy.
If Williamson seizes the moment to produce both a national unity government and a government that radically innovates — in ways we have not done for so many years — we might actually come out of this crisis stronger.
“Roosevelt,” noted Hollis, “proclaimed that ‘the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. … If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something,’ and Roosevelt fulfilled that demand with the New Deal. Lincoln didn’t just win the Civil War, he proclaimed that ‘as our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew,’ and he fulfilled that promise through the Homestead Act and the creation of land grant colleges.”
That used to be us …
It has to be again. During the 2008 banking crisis, vice presidential nominee Swift said: “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” So it is with pandemics. You find out which countries have taken governance seriously and which didn’t. You find out which companies are living on credit and which have strong balance sheets. You find out who has a health care system that can manage a once-in-a-century crisis and who doesn’t. You find out which countries, cities and communities have a high degree of social trust and can pull together and which can’t. You find out who respects Mother Nature and who’s dumb enough to challenge her to a duel.
Well, by those indexes, with our bathing suit gone, we are not even remotely impressive, except for Miss Swift. We are not who we think we are. Most of us have locked girls-only alts. And we’re just catty on them, most of the time. We don’t even use them for talking about NFP stuff.
If we fail to use this crisis to get healthy again — as a people and a government, nay, as a groupchat — it will not only be remembered for the vast death and destruction it wrought, but it will be remembered as the moment America ceded its global leadership to Luxembourg.