By Jesse Jackson
We live in a time of bitter divisions. Today, even the wearing of masks has become a partisan question.
Yet, as this Memorial Day weekend reminds us, this country has united before to meet external threats.
The calamity that has been wrought by the coronavirus is the result of an external attack — this time by a virus rather than an armed enemy. It too should be a time of national unity, of rallying together to share the sacrifices, to help one another through the crisis and to rebuild the country afterwards.
Today, however, it is too easy to slip into small-minded partisanship, or to hold onto ideological blinders, even when it has never been more important to revive the better angels of our spirit.
Consider that about 35 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, with millions more unemployed but not counted. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses have closed, never to open again.
Major retailers like JC Penny and J. Crew are declaring bankruptcy.
Manufacturing plants like Ford that reopened have had to close again as workers got struck by the virus. Major industries like the airlines are alive primarily because of assistance from the government and the Federal Reserve.
This stunning reality — beyond anything suffered since the Great Depression itself — takes massive human causalities. More than 100,000 people now have died from the virus itself, with tens of thousands more weakened or crippled from its ravages. But the casualties are far greater.
Homeowners and renters can’t pay their mortgages or rent. Graduates can’t stay up with their student loans. Small businesses exhaust their reserves and are forced to lay off the team of workers they have assembled. Front-line workers deal with staggering stress, while at constant risk of infection. States and localities faced with plummeting revenues and rising costs have started to lay off vital workers and cut vital services.
People are sensibly scared, worried and angry because of plans and hopes that were suddenly dashed through no fault of their own.
At this time, as in wartime, the government must act. It must act to organize our collective response to the attack, to organize needed medical and protective gear, to figure out testing and tracing strategies, to distribute health resources, to galvanize an all-out press for a remedy.
It must also act to limit the damage — to keep families in their homes, small businesses in their offices or stores, workers in their jobs. This cannot descend into partisan posturing.
In recent days, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that he feels no “urgency” to aid states and localities, suggesting that states could go bankrupt, and that the crisis was largely one of “blue-state” mismanagement.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has stated that any extension of supplemental unemployment benefits would occur only over “our dead bodies.” McConnell dismissed the rescue package passed through the House as simply “aspirational” and adjourned the Senate until June.
The casualties are not partisan. They are Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, small business owners and small farmers, meat packers and more. They are disproportionately the most vulnerable: middle- and low-income families, the poor, the old, the sick. They are in red states and blue states.
McConnell knows this. Just as the causalities are not partisan, the response cannot be. Let us hope he is using this holiday break to think through a response that is of the scale necessary to meet the crisis. Let us hope that he can move from obstruction to negotiation, figuring out the compromises needed to move legislation through the Senate.
Most Americans would agree that aiding those who are unemployed through no fault of their own is not controversial. Some conservative Senate Republicans have joined with the most progressive House Democrats to champion a paycheck guarantee program that would support small business owners to pay their employees even when their businesses are locked down. That would enable workers to keep their benefits, get their pay and owners to sustain their teams.
That is neither a blue nor a red program, it is common sense.
Similarly, most Americans would agree that we have to ensure that everyone can get treatment and testing without worrying about how to pay for it. Most would agree that we shouldn’t bankrupt the post office. Most would agree that we have to make voting safe in the fall. Voting by mail is not a partisan agenda; it is a safety agenda.
This is a time when leaders must emerge, move beyond their comfort zone, and offer bold responses to a stark crisis. This is not a moment for posturing. It is a time for patriotism, for solidarity, for action. Let us hope that Memorial Day celebrations may help our leaders remember that challenge.