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Why do political leaders make decisions that hurt people? It is not only because of stupidity, corruption, political expediency, and the other well-known characteristics of the powerful — there is also a basic structural reason that enables it all: these leaders are generally insulated from the consequences of their own policies. Anything that causes them to experience those consequences should therefore be celebrated as promoting good government.
It is easy to hurt people when you know that you will not be hurt yourself. It is easy to deprive others when you yourself will be well provided for. It is easy to neglect the suffering of others, when that suffering is nothing more than an abstraction to you. It is easy to treat others with disrespect when you yourself will always be ensconced in a bubble of deference. It is easy to tolerate — or even perpetrate — atrocities that will never place you in any personal risk. Violence that will not be inflicted upon you personally can be seen as a patriotic thrill. It is easy to brush away death when it comes only for those who you have chosen not to care about.
Inequality is the mechanism that provides the insulation between the decision-makers and the consequences of their decisions. The more unequal the society, the greater the ability of the rich and powerful to sit outside of the problems afflicting everyone else — even if the problems in question were created by the rich and powerful. Unfortunately for us, the United States of America is a highly unequal society. Economic inequality has been growing for nearly a half century, and there are no indications that that trend is slowing down. In a country where money buys political power (the ability to make the rules) as well as protection from the justice system (the ability to be personally unaffected by the rules), there is little reason to hope that the system, left to its own devices, will align the interests of the leaders with the rest of us any time soon.
It is not hard to imagine a set of rules that would help to ensure that our elected leaders are exposed to the outcomes that they themselves create. Many of those rules would fall into the category of “following the laws that already exist, but which do not touch the rich”: Paying a fair share of taxes, being subjected to the same legal penalties that poor people are when they commit crimes, being forced to navigate in business and government using the front doors that are open to everyone rather than the exclusive side doors created for those with connections. Other rules would help make political decisions more fair: Sending the children of elected leaders to the front lines of any war we fight, forcing the president to donate most of his net worth to the U.S. Treasury, making politicians live on government benefits and Medicaid, banning politicians from becoming lobbyists or other types of influence-peddlers after they leave office to eliminate the incentive to go into politics just to become rich.
There is a moral aspect to the desire to see powerful leaders reap what they sow, but the real argument for it is utilitarian. Like most of us, politicians are flawed, selfish, myopic people who often have a hard time caring about things that they do not see or feel. This basic truth drives many of our political system’s flaws, most of which spring from the fact that politicians tend to cater to the needs of, and be part of, the wealthy donor class rather than the working class. This is why slight delays in East Coast Acela service quickly raise Congressional alarm, but the utter absence of good municipal bus service in poor cities does not.
It’s going to take a while before we can get Congress to pass ethics rules mandating that they live in public housing projects and purchase their meals with food stamps. In the meantime, we must rely on other methods to make political consequences felt by our political leaders. One simple and effective way is to tell people who make monstrous, harmful decisions how you feel about them. That means not just writing letters or marching in the streets, but, perhaps, by protesting outside their home, or by yelling at them when you see them in a restaurant, or generally making it difficult for them to live comfortable lives of leisure after days spent sentencing thousands or millions of humans to suffering and despair. If the powerful build systems to insulate themselves from any unpleasant feedback, the least we can do as good citizens is to heckle Stephen Miller when he goes out for Mexican food after a long day of putting Mexican children in cages.
Now we have a pandemic. Among its many downsides is the fact that it is no longer possible to yell at Republican officials in restaurants. The task of making America’s leaders feel the consequences of their neglectful, unscientific, egotistical, stupid, and malicious approach to public health is now in the hands of nature itself. And nature delivered by bestowing the coronavirus on President Donald Trump and many of his top allies. Now, the people who have, with their own decisions, created the conditions that will unnecessarily kill hundreds of thousands of Americans get to experience a little bit of reality. (I can’t quite say they are getting a taste of their own medicine, because they still get medicine that is not available to most of the rest of the country.)
When something like this happens, part of the population revels in the schadenfreude, while the media and political classes swing the other way, ostentatiously praying that the man who would happily put many of them in prison gets well soon. I simply want to point out that these are not the only possible reactions. Rather than torture ourselves with an empathy test over loving our enemies, let us regard this as a positive step towards good government. The suffering of our most well-insulated elites will bestow in them a valuable new understanding of the urgency of the problems facing our nation.
Is it “good” that Donald Trump got the coronavirus? It doesn’t matter. From the standpoint of the public interest: Better him than anyone else.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.