The global coronavirus pandemic has consumed the news cycle for the past several months and quarantined us in our homes. I suppose this gives us all some time to reflect and think about some things. Not surprisingly, the crisis has divided our politics and media along familiar lines, despite all the admonishments that a biological pathogen doesn’t politically discriminate. Three months in and we now have red vs. blue viewpoints on the interpretation of uncertain data generated by speculative models, the divergence of expert opinions, on necessary mitigation policies, the costs and benefits of economic lockdowns, and even what to call the contagion. Several commentators have opined that, instead of unifying us against a common threat, the pandemic has only intensified the identity-based culture war that characterizes our dysfunctional politics.
I have long maintained that the subcultural wars are actually a proxy for several true fault lines in American society. Primary is the divergence between urban and rural/suburban political interests. This geographic divide coincides with lifestyle choices and associated household patterns, most typically the difference between two-person married households vs. single and female heads of households. As we know, single urbanites overwhelmingly vote Blue, while rural and suburban marrieds tend to vote Red.
Because the coronavirus transmits through human contact and proximity, it tends to spread fastest through densely populated communities that define urban areas. A recent study by the Heartland Institute shows the prime determinants of high rates of infection are population density, percentage of foreign residents, age, hubs for global supply chains, and reliance on the tourist and hospitality industries. These determinants converge in cities all over the globe and reveal the highest concentration of infectious cases. For example, New York City, as of April 16, had accounted for 37 percent of all US deaths. In contrast, rural and suburban areas offer more spaced housing and shopping areas, private transportation, and far less casual human contact with strangers.
It should be obvious that strategies for social distancing differ significantly between cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Although rural communities can be hit hard, the seriousness of the virus is much more acute in our dense urban areas. This helps explain why policy preferences on mitigation differ and coincide roughly with our Red-Blue voting patterns.
The second fault line that has been brought into relief by the pandemic is the ideological divide between centralized top-down government hierarchies and decentralized bottom-up control networks. This has been a persistent tension in modern American politics ever since the Great Depression and the New Deal. Liberals and progressives believe in the efficacy of centralized governing institutions at the national level to guide policy. On the other hand, conservatives and libertarians put their faith in bottom-up, decentralized solutions that provide greater flexibility for adaptation with greater tolerance for smaller mistakes.
This predilection for top-down or bottom-up defines for each side the nature of expertise they seek for good governance. Those on the Left mostly cite the complexity of governing a large and populous country to justify a professional political class and technocracy with broad authority. Those on the Right cite the same expansiveness and complexity to argue for decentralized expertise based largely on practical experience within one’s skill set rather than theoretical knowledge. Authority in the latter view is much more constrained. The divide coincides with education in human capital vs. lived real-world experience. It’s the Ivy League vs. the School of Hard Knocks.
One challenge that arises for both sides is the sheer quantity and breadth of knowledge needed to fully understand any large, complex system. For progressives, this justifies the hierarchy of expertise for more informed decision-making, but Reds will argue for the decentralization of control to isolate problems and minimize the risks of error under uncertainty. It should be noted that the government response demanded during this pandemic has greatly expanded the role of government in our society, financially and socially. There will be repercussions.
Lastly, there is a distinct class divide on the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus. The quarantine policies have led to a direct breakdown in economic exchange with carryover effects to incomes and economic well-being. The asset-rich have experienced paper losses that will likely be mitigated by national financial policy, while their level of savings provides a self-insured safety net. However, wage earners, small businesses, and those without savings may not even survive until the government rescue funds arrive. Considering the disruption, it is almost sure that these funds will prove to be only a stopgap. (Note the public-private policy failure here.) In addition, people invested in human capital find it easier to work remotely, whereas workers providing necessary goods and services usually must show up in real-time. Thus, the threat of the virus and its economic costs are not evenly distributed across the population, causing political interests over its management to diverge.
Sadly, some political responses have tried to harness the crisis to settle old scores, such as gun control or anti-abortion laws, or to reignite partisan sniping. Congress, for its part, stuffed the $2 trillion relief bill with a smorgasbord of pork-barrel spending.
Are we destined to drive ourselves farther apart with this pandemic threat, to retreat to our comfortable Red vs. Blue identities? One would hope not, because not being smart about our responses to the threat will most certainly cost us all dearly.
The coronavirus has vexed us, and most of the planet, with some serious near-term health risks. In addition, the psychological effects are often overlooked and can lead to unexpected consequences. Faced with a likely existential threat, studies show that people take more risks than would be rational in the absence of that threat. We see this in those apocalyptic movies when widespread hysteria and panic leads to chaos and deadly conflict, where more people die from the chaos than from the threat. A national media that thrives on sensationalism only amplifies these psychological effects.
Given the uncertainty and paucity of the medical evidence in real time means we need to balance medical expertise with behavioral and social science expertise. Political management depends on this balance because a medical bias toward worst-case scenarios that fail to materialize will lead to the discrediting and dismissal of future warnings. One must also appreciate the dire consequences of a prolonged economic crisis in terms of devastated lives and livelihoods. If people sense that the economic risks outweigh the health risks, a coordinated strategy will fall apart.
From a social psychology and political perspective, it’s better to be prudent, plan contingencies for the worst, but still promote hope for the best. This suggests the smart approach would be to adopt prudent risk management strategies that address both health risks and economic pain.
With a bird’s-eye view one can see paths to conciliation and convergence, as long as we can keep our sacred cows off the paths. This is not the time to litigate contentious issues like climate change, single-payer healthcare, or immigration (though migration, internal and external, has certainly been brought to the fore).
A decentralized but coordinated response can allow divergent paths to converge on a shared successful outcome. Such a strategy also provides more information feedback on what works and what doesn’t, while isolating and minimizing losses. Risk diversification also fosters the pooling of outcomes so that successes can shore up failures. Urban centers need the supply channels from the periphery to continue to produce and deliver or they will suffer from shortages of essential goods.
The convergence of interests is the essence of democracy. It is also reinforced by the decentralized Federalism of our political institutions. Lockdown policies should differ between urban metropolises and rural counties. Each of the fifty state governors can assess conditions on the ground on a state basis and then provide guidance for interstate commerce and people migration. Some have argued that the virus knows no borders, so we need a universal strategy. But this is not quite accurate: the virus travels with human hosts and it’s those people who migrate and spread the virus across borders. We are discovering a new appreciation for nationalism and Federalism.
Cities with high concentrations of infections should have stricter stay-at-home policies and migration in and out of hot zones should be more controlled with stay-in-place policies. Laxity, with city residents fleeing to country homes, has merely brought the virus to smaller communities that lack the healthcare infrastructure to manage rapid uncontrolled outbreaks. The same applies to international mobility for business and tourism.
More flexible policies are appropriate for less threatened communities, while still maintaining prudent social distancing behavior and personal lifestyle habits. Medical data on the coronavirus shows that the elderly and those with preexisting conditions are most at risk, along with healthcare workers who are more frequently exposed. But the healthy young are more at risk from an economic crisis with the collapse of incomes and social institutions that serve them. It is up to those in productive mid-life to manage the balance among these dependent cohorts by ensuring we have the resources to do so. Our common goal is to diminish the infectious rate by pursuing strategies that make sense for a given demographic.
At the same time, safer communities need to relax the quarantine guidelines sooner than at-risk communities. Policymakers and the public are rightly concerned about the sustainability of small and medium-sized businesses. They account for roughly 52% of U.S. GDP growth and created nearly 70% of all new jobs during the previous economic expansion. It behooves us to be smart about this and less tribal about our politics.
Not surprisingly, as I write this, battle lines are forming over lockdown strategies, as we struggle to find a rational balance between health safety and economic well-being. These battles are forming along urban vs. rural polarization lines, but the political differences are probably driven less by partisanship and more by different political incentives. The downside risk of a localized health crisis causes governors and mayors to prefer to err on the side of excess caution regarding lockdowns, while they will likely assume less blame for the macroeconomic effects, at least in the near term.
President Trump and his administration face a longer-term macro threat to the national economy, which also happens to be felt directly by individual citizens experiencing the immediate financial crisis. As the economic effects become more acute, the political incentives will shift toward ending the lockdowns regardless of medical warnings. Partisan squabbling and gross media bias will only make smart trade-offs much harder to balance and will not rebound well to the political class.
Unfortunately, we can probably expect this conflict to grow more contentious as it amplifies our partisan divides. My research studies tell me it will most reflect how the different incidences of health and financial risks affect different people. Those more exposed to health risks than financial losses will opt for stricter and more extended lockdown policies, while those more exposed to economic ruin will choose to assume the health risks. The challenge is that both risks are somewhat systemic and thus the consequences are spread across the entire population. It will take clearheaded thinking to reconcile these opposing tensions.
By the time you read this, new developments will have probably unfolded, but the longer-term consequences of this pandemic will not likely be different from such contagions of the past. On a much deeper level, we will have the opportunity to face the existential meaning of how we live and govern ourselves, especially in terms of empowering individual freedom in the service of greater shared security. We will grapple with the size, scope, and centralization of government that has exploded in response to the pandemic. For example, what happens when the source of all new demand comes from government subsidies while production and supply have collapsed? Where can we possibly impose taxes to service the new debt levels?
We will wrestle with moral philosophy and ethical social values. We will have to figure out the best ways to adapt to change by making smart trade-offs. And we will have to tackle these issues within the existing structure of the democratic nation-state to manage migration patterns and border controls.
These are enormous challenges and important topics for future discussion, but it means we will have to raise our game to meet them. Better to be united than not.