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How the pandemic has exposed America’s deep divide

2020 has been a year unlike any within living memory, and one that exposed some of America's deepest divides. Judy Woodruff spoke with emergency medical physician Dr. Uche Blackstock, Eddie Glaude, of Princeton University, New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, and Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine, to discuss the pandemic, America's race problem, and the country’s leadership.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now we want to take a step back for a long view of what this historic year has revealed.

    In a conversation recorded yesterday, Judy Woodruff is our guide.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    2020 has been a year unlike any within living memory and one that exposed some of our deepest divides.

    The pandemic has now killed more than 320,000 people in the U.S. and left millions in financial distress. America's race problem erupted anew this summer after the killing of George Floyd and the deaths of other African Americans, all of this happening in the midst of a national election.

    We're joined now by four people to take a look at this past year and look ahead.

    Dr. Uche Blackstock is an emergency medicine physician and the founder of Advancing Health Equity, which is focused on addressing racism in health care, Yuval Levin, editor of "National Affairs" magazine and a director at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center in Washington.

    Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University, a staff writer at "The New Yorker," and an award-winning author. And Eddie Glaude Jr. is chair of the Department of African-American studies at Princeton University and an author himself.

    And we welcome all four of you back to the "NewsHour."

    We normally, at the end of a year, look back at the highs and the lows, but, Dr. Blackstock, I think it's fair to say this year it's been a year of low and lower.

    But let's focus first on the pandemic. What has it said to us, do you think, about America's leadership and about who we are as Americans?

  • Uche Blackstock:


    So, as we head into this — I would say this dark winter, with cases at record highs, that's increasing, I would say that there was a social contract that was broken between this country's leadership and its people.

    The fact that we have a virus that can be mitigated, and other nations have done that much more successfully than we have, has really shown the degree of the lack of leadership here.

    I have witnessed this firsthand as an emergency medicine physician. I have cared for probably up to this point thousands of COVID-19 patients. I have never been scared to go to work as I have been this year, scared of what would happen to my patients and also scared of what would happen to me and my family.

    And so I think that's a result of lack of investment in our health care infrastructure, as well as our public health infrastructure. And that's why we're seeing what we're seeing currently.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yuval Levin, what would you say this pandemic has said about our leadership and about us?

  • Yuval Levin:

    Well, I certainly agree with Dr. Blackstock.

    What we have seen is a failure of leadership. And, ultimately, a failure of leadership is a failure of responsibility. I think up and down the chain, that is what this year has shown us.

    And one thing that I have certainly learned, as someone who's tried to observe the American system of government for a long time, what's been clearest this year is that the president's responsibility, the responsibility of our leaders, ultimately, is an obligation to deal with reality.

    And I think what we have seen again and again this year is a desire to avoid dealing with reality, and instead to create alternative realities that might allow our leaders to ignore and deny their obligations. But we faced a reality that didn't care what we thought about it, right, that wasn't going to be swayed by whatever a president might have to say.

    The virus was what it was, and it required leadership that was willing to deal with it as it was, to respond to problems, to learn from failures. And it has to be said that, although we're ending the year with some light at the end of the tunnel because of the vaccine, which certainly is a triumph and, in part, an American triumph, we have for the most part seen failure after failure this year when it comes to our leadership class.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Professor Eddie Glaude, pick up on that.

    And then I know you have spoken and written a lot about what it — what this year has revealed in terms of our economic inequality, hand in hand with our — the inequality in our health care.

  • Eddie Glaude:

    Yes, so, in some ways, you can — we can echo Dr. Blackstock here, in the sense that that the social contract has been broken.

    But it's not just simply, I think, about the leadership class. In some ways, the leadership class reflects what's happening in the body politic itself, in our sense of community, right? Our relationship with each other, our sense of obligation to each other has broken, and in some ways has broken primarily because I think of what can be described as selfishness and greed.

    So, what has been revealed for me, really quickly, is that the last 40 years of particular political and economic ideology has revealed itself to be bankrupt, that it has transformed us from citizens and community with each other to individual persons in pursuit of our own self-interest, in competition and rivalry with others.

    So, there's no robust conception of the public good. And it evidences itself with liberty becoming a synonym for selfishness. It evidences itself with folks being more concerned about their 401(k)s or their stock portfolios than they are with their fellows.

    And so there's a sense in which the very ideological frame of the last 40 years has collapsed right in front of us, and we're searching and grappling for a different way of being together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Jill Lepore, thinking about that, and as someone who looks at the arc of history, how does this pandemic fit into America's story?

  • Jill Lepore:

    Well, I think we really won't know until we get to the other side of it.

    But I think an interesting question is, when did this historical moment begin? Forty years ago is a really reasonable point of departure. We can think about 1980 as a real turning point in American politics and in American economic structures.

    But I think, actually, if you look at the quantitative data, we need to go back a little bit further to sort of 1968 to 1972, because there, if you plot on a graph, you see income inequality begins to rise in that moment, and so does political polarization, both of which have been increasingly — increasing consistently since the late '60s, early '70s.

    So, what we see now, of course, with the pandemic is, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but there's also a great deal of light been cast on inequalities and asymmetries in American economic and political life that have been getting worse and worse and worse for decades.

    So, how we will remember this moment is whether we rise to the challenge at all or not.

    And I guess there's just one more thing I might speak to that hasn't been raised yet coming last year. And that is the degree to which this is a disease that affects the human family, all of us across the planet Earth. And I think there's a way in which the hope that we can find here has to do with that sensibility, that there is such a thing as a public good, and there's the good of humankind, and there's the good of our environment and the good of the planet as a whole.

    But maybe there's a way in which that one of the ways to rise to the challenge of this moment, of course, is to think about the massive failures of our federal government and the lack of leadership that everyone else has pointed to, but also to think about this as an opportunity for a kind of spiritual renewal as a human family.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Blackstock, I mean, thinking about asymmetry and the human spirit into all this, in the midst of the pandemic, we have the killing of George Floyd of other Black Americans, Breonna Taylor.

    How has that changed the way we have not only looked at this pandemic, but is this another — is this another civil rights movement in this country? How do you see it?

  • Uche Blackstock:

    You know, it's interesting.

    I think that it took a Black man being murdered on video by a police officer to wake up a sizable proportion of the U.S. population. It took a pandemic to reveal racial health inequities that have always been there. And we're — obviously, we're having conversations in a candid, more public way than was had before.

    I think what we really need to see is policy change. I think we need to see what we call the social determinants of health, jobs, housing, education, a legislative policy focus on reinvestment in Black communities. That would be action.

    If that doesn't happen, then we will just continue on with the same structural inequities that we currently have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We talk, Yuval Levin, about having a national conversation about these things, but we are a very divided country right now.

    Some of these conversations are not being had around every workspace, every dinner table. How does that affect, do you think, our ability to move forward, to take advantage of this moment?

  • Yuval Levin:

    Yes, one of the striking things about this year is that the partisan divides that have shaped our politics for so long clearly also shape our culture and our way of processing reality, so that whether it is talking about the pandemic or whether it is talking about racial justice and some of what we have seen on our streets this year, you have seen really two sorts of political conversations happening alongside each other, very rarely engaging each other, two realities that have had to face each other.

    We can hope that the challenges we faced this year, the enormous deprivation and insecurity that so many Americans are facing, might force us, as people, as citizens, and force our leaders to confront these realities as one whole.

    But I have to say, so far, and even in the wake of the election, we have seen the persistence of these two separate, distinct tracks, two separate realities, that make it so difficult for us to really come to terms with the underlying problems that we as a country are going to have to face.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Professor Glaude, what about that? How possible is it, truly, for us to tackle these issues that you're all describing, when we are so split?


    We have to tell ourselves the truth, that these two parallel worlds, these two parallel realities, one is rooted in this assumption that white people ought to be valued more than others, that there's a way in which a sense of one's own precarity, a sense of one's own economic insecurity is being displaced on to others, who are in some ways the recipients of a tyrannical government that's redistributing wealth from hardworking folk to lazy folk.

    I mean, we have to tell ourselves the truth, it seems to me. And that is, in some ways, we may very well be experiencing the last gasp of a particular understanding of the country. The demographic shifts that are — that have happened are exerting certain kinds of pressures. We're seeing those pressures evidence themselves in the body politic, as well as in our cultural lives.

    So, we're — in some ways, we're at a crossroads, to invoke a blues metaphor. And the question is, what kind of choice will we make? And I think we're waiting see — we're waiting to see what the answer will be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jill Lepore, does our history give us any clues about that?

  • Jill Lepore:

    I think our history would suggest that there needs to be — and, in fact, the history of the last year as well suggests there needs to be a lot of action at the local level.

    I mean, each of the speakers has talked about the failure of leadership on the part of the federal government. But we have seen a lot of tremendous leadership by governors and even by state legislatures and I think in local communities, providing food relief and doing their own efforts to address racial injustice and begin some of some long overdue steps.

    I do think you see evidence in different moments of crisis in the American past, where some conversations that needed to be had were really never going to be national conversations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Blackstock, do you see ingredients in the coming political leadership, the Biden administration or elsewhere, that you think will show us a way to work through some of these enormous challenges we're facing?

  • Uche Blackstock:

    I definitely see some promise. I see focus on the science, a focus on health equity and racial equity.

    But I think that we have to, as usual, hold our leadership accountable and make sure that they keep working on these goals of racial justice.

    Look, racism has essentially made Black people and other people of color sick in this country, by putting them at risk for illness for this virus. And we really need our, not just federal leadership, but local and state, to start working on efforts to address this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yuval Levin, so now two of you have brought up the importance of local leadership looking away from the center. What would you add to that?

  • Yuval Levin:

    Well, I very much agree.

    And I think that, if you want to be hopeful about America at this point, you would do better to look at our country from the bottom up than from the top down. There are a lot of promising signs of communities coming together to try to address challenges that have arisen in the course of the pandemic and that have become clearer in the course of this year in other ways, around race and policing and other things.

    We also have an incoming administration that will come in with very narrow congressional majorities. It's not clear yet if the Republicans or Democrats will control the Senate. Democrats will narrowly control the House, so that, whatever their ambitions, the new administration is going to have a lot of challenges and will have to find ways to make incremental progress through various kinds of bipartisan compromises.

    That's no easy thing now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Professor Glaude, is this a time for compromise, as we just heard from Mr. Levin, from Yuval Levin, or is it a time for standing one's ground?

  • Eddie Glaude Jr.:

    Well, it all depends on what the nature of the compromise is.

    It seems to me that the scale of the problems the country face require — requires a major intervention, transformative leadership, bold vision. America is broken, in my view. Even though we may we may be able to point to pockets at the local level where people are trying to imagine different ways of being together, I think, fundamentally, how we imagine ourselves as living together has kind of come apart.

    And so we need, I think, a bold vision, transformative vision, right? Now, that — I will not put my faith in the fact that it's going to happen in Washington, D.C., but we need it, it seems to me. We have to figure out a different way of being together if America is going to survive.

    That sounds like an old jeremiad. And I know Professor Lepore recognizes the nature of the language.

    But it seems to me that we have to — we have to kind of describe the nature of the crisis at that scale. And it seems to me we need both/and, not either/or, in terms of the response, both local and national response, not tinkering around the edges, though.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I see you smiling, Professor Jill Lepore.

    I'm going to give you the last word.

  • Jill Lepore:

    Well, I couldn't agree more that we need that bold vision. And I think we do need it at the national level. We need a new moral platform on which people can stand.

    I mean, I would like to just hear Eddie give that jeremiad to the American people.


  • Jill Lepore:

    I mean, I just don't see — I agree entirely with where we began, that the social contract has been broken.

    How do you repair that? That's an obligation that falls to each and every one of us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well we could go on and on, but we are going to leave it at that, and thank each one of you.

    Jill Lepore, Professor Eddie Glaude Jr., Yuval Levin, and Dr. Uche Blackstock, thank you, each one of you.

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