The Politics of Small Things Before, During and After the Pandemic


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July 16, 2020

The Politics of Small Things Before, During and After the Pandemic

From the Kitchen Table to the Kitchen Cabinet

  • Democracy

A paper prepared as the keynote address at the BISLA virtual conference “The World After the Pandemic,” May 29, 2020.

Between 1973 and 1989, I intensively studied public life behind “The Iron Curtain.” I researched and wrote my dissertation on student theater in Poland. In the late 70s and the 80s, I observed the emergence of an autonomous cultural and political life, and the development of a democratic opposition there and among Poland’s neighbors. I also witnessed and supported (in modest ways) Solidarność, both above and under-ground. 

After 1989, I reported on “the pursuit of democracy” around the former Soviet bloc. 

Years later, I wrote a book, The Politics of Small Things, about the major lesson I had drawn from that work, as I was trying to make sense of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath. The lesson started with a tight focus in the first chapter, entitled “Theorizing the Kitchen Table and Beyond.”

Today, I would like to update that chapter, applying it to the pursuit of democracy in the time of the pandemic, working with the proposition, drawn from Hannah Arendt, that the means of politics constitute their ends. 

Even in the darkest days of Communism, friends and family would gather in the most private of places, and would speak to each other with mutual regard and report on the latest events, trying to make sense of them and figuring out how to proceed. Together, they would read between the lines of the official press and party declarations, develop among themselves a common sense, and then act accordingly.

Note the irony: in the intimate space around the kitchen table, there was free, open, indeed public interaction among the participants. This type of action was strikingly absent in official meetings, in the press and on television, and in political gatherings of all sorts. 

Following this observation, the long history of the rise and fall of the Soviet totalitarianism can be understood. Totalitarianism developed with the destruction of public life. Totalitarianism was dismantled step by step, as the zone of free public interaction expanded, and a free politics again became possible: from zones of relative public autonomy among the arts and sciences (think Czechoslovak, Hungarian and Polish film), to unofficial informal seminars, labor agitation, and unofficial unions. 

I observed this expansion as I studied Polish theater and sat around many tables in the early 1970s, as I noted the emergence of the democratic opposition in alternative publishing and political agitation later that decade, and then the open consolidation of all this with the creation of Solidarność in 1980. This sequence had its echoes throughout the Soviet bloc, e.g. Charter 77. 

While the collapse of the Soviet Empire had its geo-political and economic causes, there was a less visible dimension, the expansion of free public life. This life is important in sustaining democratic activity under diverse political conditions, including our own, here where I sit in New York City, there where this conference has been organized in Bratislava, and everywhere else where we in this conference find ourselves, as the pandemic and its consequences rage, affecting us all.

With the simultaneous global rise of authoritarianism and the pandemic, democracy and the free public life upon which it is based, is being challenged. How the challenge is addressed will constitute what follows the pandemic. I’ll explain with a focus on the situation in my country.

America’s biggest immediate political problem is Donald Trump: the way he has campaigned and governed before the pandemic, and how he has extended his approach during the pandemic, threatens democracy in America and beyond. It also has made our experience of the Covid-19 virus far more devastating. 

New York has been the epicenter of the disease. The worst seems to be behind us, but it has been bad. American chauvinism has taken a very dark turn: “USA, USA, America is # 1!” in deaths and number of cases, along with the now nakedly visible injustices of American society with gross socio-economic inequality, racism (now tragically visible in Minneapolis), rampant individualism and the disregard for the public good, specifically public health. 

All my experience, personal and professional, tells me that we can and will likely get out of this dismal situation. The pandemic will end. And there are good reasons to believe that Trump and Trumpism will be defeated, though this is far from certain. 

I think we should pay attention to “the politics of small things” to understand where the decisive action is. There are two dimensions of such politics: that of small gestures and that of small groups, constituting the potential change within societal contexts. 

The broad context is the fractured society that America has become. 

Americans are politically polarized. Our life circumstances and chances are predictable by our zip codes, where we live, and we know little about those who live outside our zones. We know about the larger world through media, but we consume media within information bubbles, defined by our media preferences, solidified by algorithms. 

There is a red America and a blue America, and they rarely meet. And it gets more precise then that. There is a populist America, an evangelical Christian America, a progressive America, a college educated America, a gen X, millennial and boomer America, a Black and white America. And this intensifies as we social distance during the pandemic. The specific context is the atomization of this society, as we are confined to our homes and connecting primarily through electronic media.

The political game, then, is to amass majority support in this atomized context. It comes down to a struggle between the energized populist force of Donald Trump and a potentially united front working against him and his enablers.

The battle is observable, on the one hand, in Trump’s presentation of self in American political life (sociologists note the allusion to Erving Goffman upon whom I lean on in this analysis), in his tweets, rallies and press briefings, and, on the other hand, in potentially powerful opposing gestures expressed in mediated small group interactions, among those who oppose Trump. 

He was elected, has governed and seeks re-election with the support of a minority fracture of American society, his so called base. While he has had the support of the conventional constituency of the Republican Party, what brought Trump his electoral college victory, and what made him strikingly different from all previous Presidential candidates, was his overt anti-intellectual, sexist, xenophobic and racist rage and resentment, which feeds his limitless narcissism and enflames his enthusiastic supporters. Their shared rage and resentment are the key to his power. The passion matters.

For those who embrace Trump’s imagination as their own, his response to the pandemic is superb, despite the data that suggests that this is not the case. He appears as a strong leader, protecting America with walls, border fortifications, bans on visitors from China and Europe, and the suspension of immigration. Trump’s supporters see that he’s been tough from the beginning, and continues to “fight the good fight,” as he wages war against his and their imagined enemies, foreign and domestic, along with “the invisible enemy,” i.e. the virus. 

Trump has a distinctive ability to substitute his imagination of the way the world works for the way it actually works. He and his followers define this situation as real, and it is real in its consequences for them, as the Thomas theorem stipulates. They are together  constituting a reality through their collective imaginations. Sharing a coherent definition, Trump expresses support for his core, as he fights those who denigrate him. He and they ignore the complexities of pandemic, as he uses the pandemic to act more autocratically, pardoning confessed cronies, firing official government watchdogs, and conflating his personal interests with the public good. Instead of facing the pandemic and addressing it, he demonizes China and attacks the WHO..

Those outside this interactive circle, those who are concerned about public health and the health of our democracy, are a clear majority, as indicated by Trump’s dismal and falling approval ratings.. They watch Trump’s performances and are outraged, bewildered and frightened. There is broad disapproval of his handling of the pandemic, which is clearly the major issue of the upcoming election. Polling consistently indicates a majority of Americans are against him.

Yet, in order to defeat Trump and his Party, those who oppose them must unite. This is difficult in any circumstances given the fractures in American society, but especially difficult as we are social distancing. 

The turnout of his opponents on the left, right and center will decide the election. The moderate and the progressive factions of the Democratic Party, the old and the young, African Americans, White Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latino Americans, women and men, those who could work at home during the pandemic, and those who have lost their jobs or have risked their lives to make a living, all must vote in great numbers. 

Democratic political leaders are showing positive signs. Biden and his primary opponents are working together, expressing the necessary small gestures and acting together in small groups. 

Biden has gone through the rituals of honoring the value of his opponents and the importance of their campaigns, and has set up the conditions for them to rally around him and a common platform. 

His Democratic opponents have gone through the rituals of accepting defeat, while maintaining their dignity. They have expressed their support of the democratic outcome of the primary elections, even as these have been cut short by the pandemic. 

Policy advisors and experts who had worked for Sanders and Warren (Biden’s progressive opponents for the nomination) are playing a significant role in planning a bold agenda for the political future: including policy task forces that address the problems of healthcare, climate change, criminal justice reform, the economy, education and immigration. 

Yet, uniting the opposition goes beyond policy issues. Those who potentially could make up the united opposition must feel inspired to work with each other across the fractures of American society and politics. Commitment that rivals that of Trump’s base is needed. 

The way Biden and the Democrats express their opposition to Trump and the Trumpists, thus, is crucial. As “they” (the Trumpists) develop a kind of personality cult around Trump and “they” demonize the foreign as the cause of our problems, “we” (the democrats) have to express mutual regard for each other with our differences, showing we can work together in common cause. As a sociologist, I note that it is a Durkheimian battle between the power of the rituals of organic versus mechanical solidarity. The politics of small things, of gestures and small groups, made visible through media, I believe, matter.

Although it is still not certain that the coming together of the opposition’s leadership is yielding a fully engaged diverse electorate, there are some positive “small” signs. 

Biden’s great strength is in what we Americans call “retail politics.” That is how he has campaigned and governed. In face to face meetings as a Senator and a campaigner, he is warm, understanding and persuasive. He’s experienced and empathetic. He gets things done. He can forge compromises with his opponents. 

His interpersonal gestures that reveal his experience and empathy need now to be broadly communicated, as does his ability to move colleagues in small groups who don’t agree on all issues, to work together on the pressing ones, i.e. the ability that comes out of his experience as a senator and vice president. Thus, my conclusion is revealed in the perhaps strange subtitle of this lecture: “From the Kitchen Table to the Kitchen Cabinet.”

The term kitchen cabinet in American history has its origins in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Presidents ever since have had their kitchen cabinets. The term refers to the President’s more intimate trusted advisors, as alternatives to the official cabinet, the leaders of the various departments and agencies, approved by Congress. 

Biden is now, in effect, creating a kitchen cabinet before he has been elected. He is crafting focused groups of advisors to shape his plans for his presidency, as he is consulting with Democratic Governors from around the country (who have been dramatically and effectively responding to the pandemic in rational and highly popular ways), and considering possible running mates as Vice President. 

This crafting, consulting and considering are the stuff of democratic, as opposed to autocratic, governance. 

In April, I argued that expanding the visibility of these activities, showing them off, should become a key feature of Biden’s campaign. As he can’t go out and electioneer in the traditional fashion, he should reveal in regularly scheduled online events, that are promoted on national and local television, how a democratic leader draws upon the talents and expertise of those around him, and governs. 

This would be a way to illuminate the democratic alternative to Trump’s autocracy, what I think of as “the expressive antidote to the Trumpist virus.” I am pleased to see that this is happening. 

As the task in the days of Communism was to expand the life around the kitchen table to broader and broader social circles, the task for defeating Trump is to publicize, through all available media, the interactive making of the alternative to Trump. Biden and his kitchen cabinet are acting democratically now, revealing what a post-Trump return to democracy would be. The broad social movement following the murder of George Floyd is pushing the return forward.

In May, I took part in the special conference of  The Democracy Seminar. We reported on, analyzed and discussed the struggle for democracy during the pandemic, with contributions from and on Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, China, Brazil and Slovakia, as well as the U.S.. Important similarities and differences were identified. We noticed two major themes in our contributions, one notable agreement, and I made one major practical observation. 

The themes: the comparative study of a distinctive form of autocracy, or as some of the correspondents preferred “right wing populism,” and the comparative historical and sociological study of the cracks the new emerging form of repressive orders provide. 

There was a general agreement that new autocracies are supported by a coalition of nationalists and “family-value” militants, differently configured in each case, and that they are all implicated in using the pandemic for their own anti-democratic purposes. 

I had a concluding observation, revealed in the American case, but confirmed in the investigations of my colleagues from around the world: the pernicious coalitions can only be successfully opposed with alternative coalitions, empowered by shared democratic commitments, with differences on many policy details, but also with expressions of mutual respect among those who share these commitments and respect these differences, understanding that the differences are to be the topics of democratic contestation. 

There needs to be policy compromises, but there also needs to be broad expressions of mutual respect with a commitment to democracy.

I believe that such a coalition is now being formed in the U.S., and judging from my democracy seminar colleagues, can be fought for elsewhere, so that the pandemic of authoritarianism can be combated just as we continue fighting against the pandemic of COVID-19. 

The way we fight, creating and revealing kitchen cabinets across the fractures, makes possible, I believe, not only healthier bodies but also a healthier body politic after the pandemic.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research and Publisher of Public Seminar.

This piece was also part of the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.


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