COVID highlighted a significant change in American society, writes James Andrew Lewis, Senior Vice President and Director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The decades-long nuclear confrontation has firmly implanted the meme of existential catastrophe in the American psyche, the 9/11 attacks reinforced this, and the result, is that many America are now a much more risks averse society. COVID accelerated this.
A Russian audience should appreciate that America is experiencing its own Yeltsin moment. In fact, the word “moment” does not do justice to the long period of inconsistent leadership that began in George Bush’s second term. The question is whether this is one of those periodic upheavals in American society that leads to political change (something that has occurred every generation or two since the Republic was founded), or whether it is a symptom of some larger systemic difficulty, a sign of permanent diminution of American power.
No analogy is perfect, and American public institutions and economic engines remain strong (in contract to post-Soviet Russia), but the general direction of change has been one of decline. In this, President Trump is a symptom. Those who think House of Cards is a documentary on American politics were surprised when Hillary Clinton, the chosen candidate of the political establishment, was defeated (even Trump was briefly surprised). The discomfiture among the American “nomenklatura at the unexpected victory of a populist outsider” remains strong to this day.
Does COVID accelerate this decline? Almost certainly, because it has placed new strains to an already stressed American political fabric. The Federal government, although noisy, was in many ways irrelevant (a lesson not lost on many citizens). This is a bipartisan critique if we think of New York State, a Democratic Party stronghold, and one of the States whose COVID response was abysmal. COVID, at least temporarily, shifted power from Washington to the States. One problem for outside observers is that America is a truly federated Republic; the COVID response was largely managed by the 50 States and the performance of the States varied widely.
COVID highlights what one British strategist described as a period of “strategic timidity” in the West. The most fearful voices dominated the conversation on the virus, particularly in prominent national media outlets. One major paper predicted in March that the US would see a million deaths within a few months. Happily, this was wrong. But COVID highlighted a significant change in American society. The decades-long nuclear confrontation has firmly implanted the meme of existential catastrophe in the American psyche, the 9/11 attacks reinforced this, and the result, is that many America are now a much more risks averse society. COVID accelerated this.
Being averse to risk creates an innately cautious approach to policy, one that is neither nimble nor confrontational. This aversion to taking risk, as much or more than COVID, will affect America’s position in the world. There is no Roosevelt, much less a Kennedy or Reagan in the current generation of American leaders. But a weaker America does not automatically translate into gains for opponents. China’s bumbling and dishonest response to the epidemic damaged its reputation and influence globally, and one significant advantage the US retains over China is the attractiveness of its individualistic and open popular culture – no one outside of China is rushing to buy their own copy of Xi Jinping Thought.
On the positive side, COVID highlighted the ability of America’s constitution framework to handle dissent. Tocqueville wrote almost two centuries ago of the American tendency for civil disobedience. Dissent is normal here and a corrective for injudicious policy. The stresses created by the poor handling of COVID, most apparent in needless economic damage, brought the long-standing tensions over income inequality and race to a head. From a near-term perspective, this can appear frightening but if we can judge from previous incidents of unrest, the result may be positive change (including perhaps a change of leadership in the Administration, the Congress, and some Statehouses). If there is weakness, it is in American politics and parties political (at the Federal level), not America itself.
A renewed and post-COVID America is likely, however, to reconsider its global role (which is largely an inheritance from the Second World War). Many Americans are tired of endless wars and COVID has led some in the US and elsewhere to question the benefits of globalization and global institutions created in 1945 (like the World Health Organization). A rethinking of American international role, not necessarily a less role but one that is different and may require different international institutions, could begin.
COVID accelerated the information revolution created by digital technology, not just in the increased use of the internet but in its political effect. In a perverse way, the public discussion of COVID may reinforce populism (which we can define as a belief that elites do not act in the public interest), by delegitimizing governments and experts. Daniel Moynihan said fifty years ago that people were entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. The internet changed this by allowing tens of millions to express themselves and communicate with others. The flood of “facts” this produces has diluted the value of expertise. COVID accelerated this because so many expert pronouncements were wrong. Deaths were predicted to reach 1 million in the US (death reached 110,000). Unemployment was forecast to reach 20% (it peaked at 14%). The tendency of the media and many observers is to pick an extreme outcome for dramatic effect and to gain attention. If “expert” opinion is no more accurate than what you can randomly find on the internet, experts and expert judgments become less important in shaping opinion and policy.
One initial conclusion on the result of COVID was that it would change people’s attitudes on surveillance and privacy. Judging from survey data, this does not seem to be the case. Most people in western societies find surveillance distasteful, and the health surveillance system will face strong pressure to be dismantled. The desire of privacy from government will remain strong; what is unclear is whether (in the US or elsewhere), this desire will spill over into a reaction to rampant commercial surveillance.
On other issues, it is likely that we will see a “return to the mean.” This was certainly the case after the 1919 Spanish Influenza, the pandemic most similar to COVID. Societies (it not facing disruption from other sources) quickly returned to the norm in their economic and social activities. The same will be true this time if government policies do not obstruct a return to meet some health policy objective.
The one area where this may not be true is in income inequality, the crippling concentration of wealth among a few individuals. This too was problem before COVID, but the measures taken to prevent economic collapse have put increased pressure on the conservative policies of austerity in Europe and reduced government spending on public goods in the United States. This was happening even before COVID, in response to China, and the desire for change has been reinforced by the mass rejection of police violence against African-Americans.
The kind of turmoil we see now occurs every few decades in the US. The populist outburst of the 1900s saw massive inequality, lynching, McKinley’s assassination, bombs on Wall Street, and violent clashes between police and laborers. The 1960s saw burning cities and destructive riots. There are systemic problems – a Constitution designed for an 18th Century agrarian society needs to be reformed and modernized – and American society and the world have changed significantly since America’s heyday thirty years ago. The political forces these changes have unleashed were in some cases accelerated by the pandemic but not fundamentally altered. The most likely outcome is that when the world moves past COVID, the fundamentals of power and stability will look much the same as they did before.