The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, its mounting death toll, and the catastrophic economic consequences that are only now beginning to be broadly felt have, of course, consumed most people’s attention. A tableau of depressing and infuriating early failures in testing, provision of necessary medical supplies, contradictory information, slow-footed policy responses, and often obtuse denial by political leaders have compounded the anxiety so many Americans naturally feel during such a dark and dangerous time.
In that context, the possible future political consequences of this unprecedented reality may not be foremost in most people’s minds. But a presidential election is now just seven months away. And once that’s over, the country will have to find a way to lurch forward, together or divided.
One view is that the crisis will only exacerbate the deep partisan divide that has come to characterize our politics. That’s not a hard case to make. Even now, Americans differ substantially about whether the current measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, and the dangers of the virus itself, are an overreaction, though that gap is dwindling. And nothing predicts those perceptions better than partisanship.
According to a recent Pew poll, as of mid-March, among those for whom Fox News is their primary news source (an almost perfect proxy for Republican party ID), fully 56 percent believed the media “greatly exaggerated” the risks from coronavirus. Among those who rely mainly on MSNBC (nearly synonymous now with being a Democrat), 12 percent said the same thing.
Democrats and Republicans, not surprisingly, also differ wildly in their assessment of who is to blame for the current crisis. Republicans are far more likely to blame President Obama than Trump, for example, and also place more blame on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health agencies than they do the sitting president. Unsurprisingly, Democrats overwhelmingly say Trump is more at fault than anyone else.
Moving beyond public opinion, the potential for a further unraveling of Americans’ already frayed trust in government looms. As the UNC-Chapel Hill political scientist (and my collaborator) Marc Hetherington told The New York Times last week: “If the government doesn’t succeed [in mitigating the crisis adequately], it has the potential to further undermine trust in government. People already don’t trust it to redistribute money and provide certain services, which is bad. If they come to think it is not competent to keep us safe, it will be even worse, much worse.”
Indeed, Hetherington notes, Republicans’ “cynical approach” to campaigning, by running against the government, has now “infected their approach to governing” itself. Staffing shortages in key agencies and promotion of rank amateurs with no expertise to key policy positions has exacerbated the response every step of the way. And all of that could have the perverse effect of convincing many conservatives that government, per se, is the problem, even as some excuse the people most responsible for those failures.
In turn, many liberals appear to be more convinced than ever that the GOP has become a “death cult,” indifferent at best to mass suffering, as long as it’s “those” people who do the suffering. The specter of deepening antipathy and perhaps complete delegitimization of government when the other party is in power hangs over us.
But there is another view.
One striking fact in the current crisis is that public health messaging is being framed not just in terms of the dangers of the virus to each individual but to people around them. And for now, that messaging is largely working. As of this writing, more than three-quarters of Americans are under stay-at-home orders, in blue and, increasingly, red states. And some really obnoxious exceptions notwithstanding, most are complying.
On a basic personal level, most Americans, regardless of partisanship, now seem to grasp the seriousness of the crisis and their own role in mitigating it.
Stephen Colbert once famously said that reality has a well-known liberal bias. In a similar vein, at some point, all the sophistry in the world cannot explain away what scientific evidence—and reality—make plain. For example, polling in recent years has found that Republicans who live in areas directly affected by hurricanes tend to accept the reality of climate change more than they did previously. Likewise, as Americans see their families and communities affected in the most fundamental ways by the coronavirus, there might be broader acceptance of the relationship between their lives and the role of competent government—and scientific expertise—in protecting it.
Notably, according to some polls, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert who has become the go-to medical source on COVID-19, is the most trusted public figure in the country right now.
None of that will amount to much if the government is perceived as having failed at its most fundamental tasks in the current crisis—namely, minimizing the loss of life and keeping the American economy afloat. The federal government, in particular, failed badly in the critical early weeks of the pandemic.
But if people believe that, over time, government entities and medical experts played a positive role in leading us through this crisis, that could engender a shift in how some Americans view authority and expertise. That might be true even if the Trump administration continues to scuffle.
State governors, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Oregon’s Kate Brown, Ohio’s Mike DeWine, and Kentucky’s Andy Beshear have earned high marks across the aisle for being steady hands in uncharted waters. And, of course, medical workers continue to be hailed as front-line heroes. Perhaps such recognition could prompt a reorientation of Americans’ attitudes toward public servants more broadly.
Likewise, if people believe that the massive and highly visible stimulus Congress has provided to individuals and small businesses saved livelihoods, families, and communities, its indispensability, under responsible stewardship, might be more widely appreciated.
This isn’t a brief for an impending kumbaya moment in the United States. That seems unrealistic. But it is a reminder that what seem like unshakeable, iron laws of political and social life have a habit of transforming, under unforeseeable circumstances, in ways that are hard to imagine at present.
JONATHAN WEILER is a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.
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