Transformation: The Impact of the COVID-19 Plague on Western Political Attitudes

EDITORIAL, 24 Aug 2020

#653 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

A silent revolution in political attitudes is taking place in the United States and other Western nations in response to the pandemic that begin with the coronavirus outbreak and global spread of the disease COVID 19 in the winter and early spring of 2020. Remarkably, this transformation seems to have gone almost unnoticed, although it involves a sharp reversal of long-established political commitments and linkages. To put the matter briefly, the forces of the left have fallen in love with collectivized Authority, while the legions of the right have embraced individualized Liberty.

This development is more marked, perhaps, in the U.S. than in Europe, but it reflects a startling ideological turnaround. From the sixties onward, the motto of leftists and progressives was “Question Authority!” while that of most conservatives was “Uphold Tradition!” What the right meant by family values, religious freedom, and patriotism was the obligation to follow orders issued by patriarchal leaders of traditional collectivities such as the family, the church, and the nation. What the left meant by power to the people and freedom of choice was the obligation of marginalized individuals (workers, youth, women, racial minorities, LBGTQ individuals) to challenge traditional authority in the name of individual rights.  What we now witness is a reversal of these polarities.

Consider some of the controversies being generated by the coronavirus plague and its sequelae. We must wear masks to signify and implement our responsibility to each other (the collective), say the progressives. We must strengthen public authority to deal in a coordinated national, if not international, manner with a collective threat, as China and other Asian nations have done.  We must inculcate in our people an ethos of discipline, self-sacrifice, and respect for scientific and technical authority. For the primary challenge we now face is a challenge to our security, and government’s primary role must be to guarantee our collective right to survive.

Nonsense, reply President Trump and his rightist supporters. Mask-wearing may be advisable but is a matter for individual choice, not compulsion. Big Government is still bad government; the Chinese example shows the evil, not the virtue, of collectivism. The scientific and technical communities are self-aggrandizing interest groups, not objective sources of information or guidance. And while public health is of great importance, our primary purpose is to flourish individually by creating a prosperous economy. Therefore, we must “reopen” our companies, schools, and other institutions immediately, without exaggerating the security threat posed by the coronavirus.

Of course, the transformation evidenced by these attitudes and positions is not total.

In the U.S., a certain leftist collectivism is a legacy of the New Deal, while a rightist libertarianism associated with the Tea Party movement has flourished since the late 80s.  Nevertheless, I want to argue that a major tectonic shift is clearly under way.

To understand the sources of this change and its likely direction, a brief review of the recent history of the pandemic may be useful. While the global spread of the coronavirus shocked and frightened virtually everyone, the shock was particularly disconcerting in advanced industrial nations that had long considered themselves immune from such “primitive” dangers. With the advantage of hindsight, one can see that the plague was not the only recent threat to human security that seemed strangely atavistic. Rather than experiencing the nuclear exchanges and cyberwars feared by many experts, rich and poor nations alike were afflicted by natural disasters, many linked to climate change, that appeared almost biblical in their scope and effects: earthquakes, cyclones, fires, and floods.  In important respects, however, the pandemic had an even more devastating impact, since it was followed by a series of aftershocks that intensified and extended the crisis.

To begin with, combating the virus meant quarantining populations and imposing new controls over the social behavior of large numbers of people. The immediate effects of such measures were to suspend normal business activities, generating massive losses of capital and jobs, to curtail internal and international travel, and to close schools and places of public accommodation. The results soon began to resemble the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s, with workers, poor farmers, and people of color bearing the brunt of the economic damage, as well as suffering disproportionate losses from the COVID 19 plague itself.

Moreover, as it became clear that authoritative figures and institutions in a number of nations had failed to secure their people against these biological and economic threats, the relations between citizens and authorities were subjected to enormous strain. In the United States and certain other nations, the shocks of medical vulnerability, economic decline, and exacerbated inequality were compounded by militant (although largely nonviolent) movements of protest challenging the systems that had allegedly failed to secure people’s basic rights and interests. Protests and demonstrations organized by groups on the left emphasized the role of political and economic institutions and attitudes in perpetuating racism, sexism, and other forms of structural and cultural inequality, while those emanating from the right emphasized threats to individual freedom posed by bureaucratic authorities and scientific experts.

For researchers in the field of peace and conflict studies, the successive shocks of the pandemic and ensuing conflicts constitute a major challenge. Although it is not clear that the crisis is generating new social struggles, it seems undeniable that it has inflamed existing conflicts between antagonistic socioeconomic, political, and cultural groupings. What, then, can be said about the likely course of these struggles? Will they expand and escalate?  Will new opportunities for peaceful conflict resolution be presented?  Our attempts to project existing trends into the near-term and middle-term futures are complicated by two further features of this unusual crisis: the rise of radical uncertainty and the delegitimization of established governance systems.

Radical Uncertainty

Normally, advanced industrial nations rely heavily – one might even say, compulsively – on short term planning that assumes the predictability of everyday events. (The stock phrase, “business as usual” reflects this assumption). But the pandemic and its aftershocks have undermined predictability, making it virtually impossible to say when the virus will be brought under control, how it is expected to develop pending the development of an effective vaccine, or when economic and social activity in affected nations can safely resume.  In fact, as the crisis continues with no end in sight, the uncertainty increases and becomes more general.

Under these circumstances, people’s expectations that social and political relations will return to some “normal” status quo ante tend to erode. Most analysts assume that the coronavirus will eventually disappear as a major public health problem, but many believe that post-corona society will be altered in fundamental respects. For example, serious environmental threats will continue to cause destruction and alarm the public as a result of ongoing climate changes, creating demands for protective and preventative government action not unlike those made in response to the COVID 19 crisis.  Meanwhile, the inability of private as well as public organizations to make reliable short-term plans plays havoc with the economy, as well as with many people’s sense of personal stability.

Delegitimization of Governance Systems

The failure of established leaders and institutions to deal effectively with the pandemic and its sequelae constitute another shock, especially in economically advanced nations that have long considered themselves models of effective public administration and responsible citizenship. As the United States became the global epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for more than one-quarter of all coronavirus cases and COVID 19 deaths, U.S. residents found themselves observing governance systems in nations such as China, Vietnam, and South Korea with envy and incomprehension.

Utilizing a combination of top-down state authority and bottom-up popular collectivism, these regimes apparently brought the virus under control, as did certain European states that could rely on relatively efficient administrations and disciplined populations. But from the U.S. and Brazil to India and the Philippines, in nation after nation that failed to deal adequately with the pandemic and its economic consequences, relationships between ruling elites and subject groups have been seriously disrupted, as are relations between scientific and technical experts and masses of people now unsure about what or whom to believe.

Pre-pandemic political and social systems have clearly been impacted by the crisis, although it is not yet clear how profound and long lasting these changes will prove to be.  Of particular importance to conflict analysts are the implications of changes that alter or bypass existing institutions intended to manage social conflicts, since this sort of disruption can open doors both to escalated struggles and new peacemaking initiatives.

For example, the current burst of demonstrations and other activities on behalf of racial justice in the United States could conceivably generate a white nationalist backlash that, exploited by unscrupulous or desperate political leaders, might make violent confrontations such as the Charlottesville, Virginia riot of 2019 seem commonplace.  Alternatively, one can imagine the present strong surge of public support for organizations protesting police violence generating a new popular consensus that could support multi-racial peacebuilding in the U.S. on a large scale.

In short, to maintain that the pandemic of 2020 and its aftershocks have very likely inflamed existing social and cultural conflicts by no means forecloses the possibility that, by shaking up existing systems of governance, they have also created new opportunities for effective conflict resolution. Those interested in peace and social justice have their work cut out in the period of hope and danger that now confronts us.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).  His book in progress, to be published in fall 2020, is Post-Corona Conflicts: New Sources of Struggle and Opportunities for Peace.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Aug 2020.

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