This Crisis Will Not Bring Americans Together and Maybe That Is a Good Thing
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Toward the end of March, when it became more and more clear how disruptive and serious the COVID-19 outbreak was going to be, many people expressed hope that even though the situation would be quite an ordeal at least it would provide an opportunity for the country to pull together and unite to defeat a common enemy. Some may even have referenced 9-11, in the aftermath of which internal debates were set aside for the sake of unity in confronting an external threat.
However, in the past month, our hyperpartisanship has somehow managed to rise above even the fever pitch witnessed during the impeachment proceedings, and the hoped-for unity has not emerged. In hindsight, the reasons for this are actually quite clear when doing more than a surface-level historical comparison.
There is a great deal of evidence that supports the idea that when faced with external threats, especially existential ones, a society’s level of cohesion will increase and the importance of internal disagreements will decrease out of the necessity of dealing with the threat. War is the ultimate form of external existential threat and produces the well-established “rally around the flag” effect. Consider the way in which opposition to the First and Second World Wars vanished practically overnight once the US officially entered the conflicts.
However, there are several key differences between the current virus and an existential war. For one thing, the virus is not an external threat that can unify the country as an “in group” versus an external “out group” enemy. Although fear of the Japanese navy shelling San Francisco would unite everyone together in its defense, the virus has transformed friends, neighbors, and family into potential deadly enemies carrying the virus. This will obviously lead to a breakdown of social trust and harmony, not aid it, and that is why we have seen an outbreak of panicked snitching to authorities all around the country.
Another key difference is that the proliferation of news sources has created avenues for “official” narratives to be undermined and supplanted. Whereas at the beginning of the crisis there was a great deal of uncertainty and unknowns about the danger of the virus, it has since become clear that we are not facing the return of the Black Death. This has caused people to question whether the official policy responses have been justified. Similarly, the proliferation of information has made it much easier to learn about the potential and already realized costs of mitigation efforts and factor them into their cost-benefit analyses. However, since such valuations are subjective, there will necessarily be disagreements about the result of the cost-benefit calculation.
In contrast, during previous existential wars, the government heavily censored the press and the free flow of information, which prevented the already tiny minority of dissenters from growing any larger and also prevented inflammatory debate between differing perspectives.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the intense divide in the US. Social trust is a key ingredient for a happy, healthy, and wealthy society, yet an October 2019 poll by the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University found “that the average voter believes the U.S. is two-thirds of the way to the edge of a civil war.” Politics is increasingly becoming a high-stakes zero-sum game where the losers fear destruction at the hands of their enemies. This can incentivize desperate action if the situation becomes dire enough.
It is clear that an increase in social trust and cohesion would be desirable; however, the method in which this cohesion is achieved matters a great deal as well.
The past century was, to some extent, one long series of perceived existential threats, beginning with the First World War and continuing into the Second World War, which in turn gave birth to the Cold War. Political scientist Michael Desch theorizes in his paper “War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?” that this series of crises played a large role in the formation of the powerful centralized states we are familiar with today. External threats do not only lead to internal cohesion, but they also bring about an increase in state power in order to deal with the threat. As we know from Robert Higgs’s idea of the “ratchet effect” each crisis leads to an increase of state power that in turn fails to return to precrisis levels. The result, Desch argues, is that since the end of the Cold War we have been left with a conundrum. We have very powerful states thanks to the previous threats, but now those threats are gone, and with them the social cohesion that they facilitated. As a result, the internal differences are emerging again, but the playing field is different. Thanks to the growth of the state, the stakes are much higher, and groups fear that they will be crushed by the other side if they lose.
Any cohesion brought about by the virus would only make it easier for all levels of government to seize and centralize more power and control—control that would not be fully relinquished once the pandemic was over. As unpleasant as it is, it may be that our out-of-control partisanship is for the best when it comes to ensuring that there is pushback on power grabs.
In the long term, it is imperative that some semblance of social trust be restored in the US. However, unless such unity and trust are cultivated correctly, rather than crudely pounded in via a crisis, things will only get worse over time. At the root of the social distrust is the centralization of power within the federal government. The only way to diffuse the situation is to decentralize that power. Ryan McMaken has noted that even Democrat governors are embracing federalism in the midst of the crisis. A wider embrace of federalism would no doubt be helpful, but it is not enough. Power exists outside of the state in various institutions that have existed for all of history, such as family, church, and market. Until that power is restored and kept in balance across all the institutions of society, the mistrust and simmering conflict will continue. Crisis-induced cohesion is not a silver bullet, but rather a ticking time bomb.