The Viral Center

A woman wears a stars-and-stripes bandana for a face mask in Washington, D.C., April 2, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The coronavirus and the new American middle

The coronavirus struck America during an era of polarization. Politics was bitterly divided. The two sides did not just disagree. Partisans existed in separate realities, with different religious commitments, moral attitudes, policy priorities, and sources of information. The gaps between blue states and red states, and between the rural and urban areas within them, seemed unbridgeable. Some analysts spoke of a “cold civil war.” Its resolution would decide the nation’s fate.

The pandemic put this rhetoric of crisis in perspective. The public has less patience for trolling and kayfabe when the death toll rises above 26,000 people (at the time of writing). Competence matters more than celebrity. Predictions of the apocalypse that will befall the land if one’s preferred candidate does not win the next election are trivial compared with the potential risk the virus poses to one’s self and one’s family. True, the Internet and social media remain darkling plains where woke scolds and MAGA men clash by night. But their arguments are tangential to the mainstream of American life.

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If traces of polarization remain in politics, they are absent from society. Since March 11, the day Tom Hanks announced he had the virus and the NBA suspended its season, Americans have reorganized their lives, economy, and opinions with remarkable speed. Their withdrawal from schools, offices, stadiums, shops, theatres, trains, airplanes, and hotels preceded state and local government mandates and regulations. The only precedent for the manner in which the labor force has realigned itself over the past month is World War II.

A justifiable fear drives public opinion. This anxiety is not limited to the virus. It extends to the economy and to the mechanisms of globalization that spread the disease. Infectious diseases are now the greatest threat in the eyes of the public. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyberattacks rank second, third, and fourth. China is fifth. The percentage of Americans who identify China as a major threat has risen 20 points in three years. Hawks have thought for a while that Americans would not recognize the danger of China without a showstopping event. Coronavirus is it.

About three-quarters of Americans worry that they or someone in their family will be exposed to the coronavirus. A FiveThirtyEight analysis of polls found that close to 90 percent of Americans are worried about the economy. Ninety percent of adults say their lives have changed because of coronavirus, according to Pew. Eighty percent told Gallup that they have faced a great deal or fair amount of disruption because of the pandemic. A rising number of Americans expect the shutdowns and lockdowns to extend for the rest of 2020. Or longer.

Americans are not avoiding unnecessary physical proximity to people outside their household for the fun of it. Nor have they radically altered their daily routines because Gretchen Whitmer said so. They have seen the rate at which the coronavirus spreads. They have read or watched the virus kill young and old, black and white, rich and poor. They do not need Hobbes to remind them of their fear of violent death.

It was not media-induced panic but common sense that modified American behavior. The public is split on whether to trust the media. It is united in its embrace of social distancing. “About nine-in-ten U.S. adults (91%) say that, given the current situation, they would feel uncomfortable attending a crowded party,” says Pew. “Roughly three-quarters (77%) would not want to eat out at a restaurant. In the midst of a presidential election year, about two-thirds (66%) say they wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a polling place to vote.” Americans who attend church have turned to televised or online services. They have been praying for an end to the pandemic. And the prayerful include Americans who do not normally pray.

The overwhelming majority of Americans will not accept unquestionably assurances from Mike Pence or Andrew Cuomo or Joe Biden that the coast is clear. They will make their own decisions. “When asked how quickly they will return to their normal activities once the government lifts restrictions and businesses and schools start to reopen, the vast majority of Americans say they would wait and see what happens with the spread of the virus (71%) and another 10% would wait indefinitely,” wrote Gallup’s Lydia Saad on April 14. “Just 20% say they would return to their normal activities immediately.”

Pandemic politics is nationalist. Americans privilege their home and fellow citizens over other countries and other people. The policy earning the most support in a recent USA Today/Ipsos survey was widely available testing (92 percent). Other measures that enjoyed more than two-thirds support included, in descending order, cancellation of mass gatherings (85 percent), expanded paid sick leave (81 percent), mandatory quarantines for international travelers (81 percent), stopping all immigration (79 percent), grounding all international flights (70 percent), and a nationwide lockdown until the end of the month (69 percent).

The public demands a reassertion of sovereignty. It looks to scientific authority for guidance. Some 80 percent of Americans look with favor upon the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Anthony Fauci has, at 77 percent, the highest approval rating of any American official. At the beginning of the month, Axios reported that Fauci was the third-most discussed person online. Only Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump were ahead of him. Unlike the politicians, Fauci enjoys positive coverage.

Trump abides. He appears immune to the changes coronavirus has brought to the United States. He is a reminder of polarization. The slight improvement in his approval rating pales in comparison with the bumps enjoyed by foreign leaders during this crisis and by past presidents in earlier ones. Nor has the coronavirus transformed the dynamic of the presidential race. On March 11, Biden led Trump by seven points in the RealClearPolitics average. At the time of writing, Biden leads by 5 points. Trump’s approval rating is about where it needs to be to score a second Electoral College win.

Still, Election Day is not for six months. Both candidates and both parties have plenty of time to screw things up. They have to navigate a new political, economic, social, and cultural environment. No easy task, no easy feat. Victory goes to the man who best intuits the apprehensions, dreads, antagonisms, hesitations, anticipations, and desires of a new American middle that will persist for as long as the coronavirus stalks the earth.

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