Pandemics have political consequences. In the aftermath of these sorts of disasters, everything from trust in institutions to government satisfaction can undergo significant, albeit temporary, changes. COVID-19 is no exception. Already, the pandemic has sparked nationwide strikes among gig workers, protests from medical professionals and rallies against stay-at-home orders.
Will COVID-19 create a new, long-term political coalition? Yes, but if recent history is any indication, it will be a relatively small group. Any hope of COVID-19 unifying the United States for the long term is a pipe dream — unless we collectively and consciously internalize the losses that so many people have and will continue to experience.
Following 9/11, the majority of Americans changed their political habits, but only for a few months. For example, many voters temporarily became less supportive of immigration. But for the neighbors and especially the family members of 9/11 victims, the changes in political behavior were much more drastic and long-lasting. For more than a decade, 9/11 shaped how victims’ family members and neighbors approached politics in several ways. They voted more frequently, family members increased their political donations and family members and neighbors became more conservative.
The political changes following 9/11 show that “shocks” such as terrorist attacks, disasters and economic collapses mobilize those most impacted. But that mobilization is contingent upon another factor: the extent to which the impacted community shares a “linked fate.”
Though both Black individuals and Latinx individuals were among the hardest hit communities in the Great Recession, the two experienced very different political responses. Whereas political participation increased among the Black community, it decreased among the Latinx community. Why? This can be partly explained by the fact that Black people tapped into the resources associated with a linked fate. It’s the idea that more Black voters possessed a willingness to prioritize the well-being of the group over individual interests because they have learned from history that “we are in this thing together.” This feeling of togetherness is critical to turning changes brought on by a temporary event into a sustained movement.
The creation of a sustained political coalition based on COVID-19 is unlikely because while many of us may all be inside, those who have to go outside and who have faced the brunt of the crisis occupy a narrow, already vulnerable slice of the population. For instance, consider that Black individuals make up just 13% of the U.S. population but amount to 30% of COVID-19 patients. In terms of financial impact, the COVID-19 crisis has affected workers in sectors known for their instability and undercompensation. These sectors also tend to disproportionately employ young, female and less formally educated employees.
So while all Americans will likely briefly unite around some political changes in the near future, a long-term political coalition created due to COVID-19 is unlikely to form. Too few of us feel as though our fates are linked because presently, they frankly aren’t — the few groups fortunate enough to stay inside have yet to experience the same level of personal and financial loss.
Turning COVID-19 into a political coalition that rallies behind less political corruption (see Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.), less inequality and more health care for all is possible. However, that possibility is contingent on everyone doing more to make this crisis personal.
How do you do that? In the short run, you volunteer wherever you can, you donate whatever you can and you support anyone who asks for help. In the long run, you continue to engage with your community.
Shelter-in-place orders are based solely on the fact that the actions of a single individual can affect an entire community. That power will not end when the orders do. We can and must learn about the problems impacting those who live down the street or across the park because their problems are likely related to our problems. Set yourself and your community up for success by preparing to take action as soon as the orders are lifted. Pledge now to join a nonprofit that serves your community. Finish this article, then register to vote (tweet me to prove it). Mark off a day each week during which your sole goal is to learn about an issue in your neck of the woods.
Our fates are linked — Americans just need to realize it. Once we do, we can collectively shift our political behavior for the long term, so that we never return to the normal we tolerated before.