With a new variant running rampant, an enormous wave of cases, hospitals under strain, mask mandates returning, states of emergency being redeclared, and schools reverting to virtual learning, it is easy to get the sense that we have slid back to where we started. A raft of news articles in late December described the perilous and demoralizing feeling that the country was returning to the pandemic moment of early 2020.
Yet much has changed in two years. Besides the fact that Omicron is milder, we now have vaccines, antivirals, and a much better understanding of the disease and how to treat it. Logistical, rather epidemiological, problems — such as the shortage of health care workers, the distribution of new medical treatments, and inadequate testing capacity — increasingly take center stage in our policy debates.
But the change goes much deeper than this. The political form of the crisis itself is now fundamentally different.
Back in March 2020 — when the country finally snapped to attention — the rationale for shutting down national life was not that everyone faced the same degree of risk. Rather, it was that the only effective way to neutralize the threat was for all of us to work together. Those who could stay home should, for the sake of those who couldn’t — to “flatten the curve” and relieve our health care system. The rationale for pandemic policies was altruistic, though paradoxically so: We had to withdraw from our common life to protect the common good.
What the pandemic gave rise to, then, was not just extraordinary policies — such as school closures and stay-at-home orders — but an extraordinary form of politics. A community facing a crisis of such magnitude becomes unified. Analogies with World War II were commonplace: We are facing a once-in-a-century global threat that requires all of us to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, much as during the 1940s Americans accepted rationing and planted victory gardens and sent their sons to fight and die overseas for the sake of defeating the Axis powers.
It is easy to forget now how real that unity was in the pandemic’s early phase. The doubts about restrictions that are now so pervasive were the province of a small minority. Most elected leaders — including President Trump himself — ignored the skeptics and heeded the advice of the experts, who then urged lockdown policies. And the large majority of our fellow citizens went along with them. Indeed, research suggests that many Americans were already voluntarily withdrawing from public activities before leaders imposed restrictions.
That moment has passed. We are no longer unified as a country around a shared purpose and mission. Instead, we are increasingly polarized along familiar ideological, sociological, and geographic lines, precisely about how we view Covid and what it demands of us.
This polarization is, of course, widely recognized and bemoaned. And yet much of our country’s political and media leadership seems unable to come to grips with our fractured state. They persist in a political mode that wishes the country back into that unifying moment of March 2020.
The Trump administration squandered an opportunity to lead during our moment of unity, needlessly undermining it with mixed messaging and by sowing distrust. The Biden administration is now undermining its own pandemic response for almost the opposite reason: by failing to articulate a clear objective and path to victory to a stubbornly divided country that can no longer agree about what kind of threat it faces, much less what to do about it.
If we have any hope of a return to normal life, our leaders must come to grips with the return of normal politics.
The state of our country in March 2020 resembled what Roger A. Pielke, Jr. calls “tornado politics.” As we saw in Kentucky last December, when there is a natural disaster like a tornado bearing down on a community, citizens are united by a commonality of purpose. There is an extraordinary crisis that demands extraordinary action, whether that be boarding up one’s home, evacuating to escape danger, or sheltering in place. What distinguishes tornado politics is not that everyone agrees about what to do or how to do it, but rather that disagreements do not stand in the way of the community banding together to protect its common interests.
Pielke contrasts tornado politics with “abortion politics.” Here the problem is anything but unifying. Instead, each party brings separate values to bear, has divergent interpretations of the available information, and places different weights on the uncertainty of that information. As a result, they are willing to make different kinds of tradeoffs for the sake of what may be incompatible goals. In such situations, unity around a common interest is impossible, precisely because there is profound disagreement about what our common interest is in the first place.
In an insightful essay from June 2020, Taylor Dotson argued that America’s pandemic response is best understood as a combination of these modes of politics — a kind of “gray area” between the two. Though a threat is bearing down on us, the way we evaluate that threat is inextricably bound up with our value conflicts. And, indeed, even in the early days of the pandemic, there were some who doubted that Covid was as bad as the experts said, or that the enormous costs of even temporary “lockdowns” were worth it. In effect, the skeptics were arguing that Covid should not be treated as an extraordinary threat, but something that could be tackled by ordinary political means.
Yet, by and large, Americans — including most conservatives and libertarians — rejected this view, at least at the beginning of our pandemic response. For most, it was clear that Covid posed a singular threat and required a singular reaction. It was this broadly shared concern that gave rise to the extraordinary — and extraordinarily unifying — form of politics of the early pandemic. To be sure, that phase was never quite total, and what there was of it ended quickly.
Sometime in spring 2020, we began to move farther away from tornado politics into that “gray area” described by Dotson. As the threat persisted, what was once a marginal view of a minority of skeptics increasingly became mainstream. Meanwhile, the prospect of pandemic policies becoming permanent fixtures of ordinary life has grown ever more likely in the face of an enemy we have realized may never surrender.
Tornado politics are by definition extraordinary. The measures required to face down the threat suspend ordinary life. That is because they are understood to be not only necessary but also temporary. You don’t need a national draft once the Axis powers have surrendered.
Perhaps then a more pertinent, if less auspicious, analogy for our pandemic politics today is not America after Pearl Harbor, but America several years into the War on Terror. In the months immediately following September 11, American politics was characterized by an almost unprecedented degree of unity — especially considering that it came on the heels of an extremely acrimonious presidential election, which some Americans believed to have been unfairly decided. Moreover, there was widespread agreement about the appropriate response to the terrorist attacks, at least initially. Although some Americans voiced dissent, many believed that protecting our country required extraordinary sacrifices. This was the “spirit of 9/12,” whose loss would be lamented by old-guard figures from across American life for years afterward.
And yet, as the months and years wore on, public support for these policies began to crack and then splinter along familiar political lines. To those who continued to support the policies, the fight against terrorism was an existential struggle to preserve our way of life, regardless of what one’s individual risk of dying in a terrorist attack might be. It required extraordinary measures. To those who began to reject the policies, terrorism was a real threat but should not be blown out of proportion. It could be handled by ordinary political means. These two camps occupied different realities, reinforced by their own echo chambers.
One side saw the other as unwilling to confront a clear and present danger. The other saw the first as alarmist, and impugned the motives of the officials and experts who urged vigilance. Some suggested that the Bush administration was seeking merely to expand executive powers by perpetuating a permanent state of emergency. (It is fitting that a prominent left-wing critic of the War on Terror, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben — who has made a similar critique of what he calls the “techno-medical despotism” of our pandemic politics — has become a hero to the “new right” in the age of coronavirus.) Most Americans, however, fell somewhere in between, concerned about the threat of terrorism but less and less willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for the cause.
This dynamic is emerging again now. To some Americans, the threat posed by Covid still appears extraordinary — normal life must be suspended or even permanently transformed to defeat it. But a growing number have come to see the threat as real but not extraordinary, ranking it much differently than they did in March 2020. Implicit in our rancorous political debates is a fundamental disagreement about whether Covid still is an extraordinary threat — and thus whether the suspension of both ordinary life and ordinary politics is still necessary.
The point here is not to adjudicate this disagreement, but to observe that, two years after the pandemic began, quite like two years after 9/11, today we are no longer united around a common purpose but divided. We are divided over the nature of the threat, what it will take to defeat it, and what defeating it even means. We are a long way from the tornado politics that seemed to characterize our pandemic response in the winter of 2020, and we are not likely to go back.
Since the division increasingly reflects familiar political and social divisions, class and regional splits over Covid behavior could well become an enduring feature of American life, with red and blue regions becoming ever more different worlds. In urban areas, CDC guidelines may continue to be sacrosanct. In exurbs and rural areas, they may start to be treated like the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System created after 9/11 — at once indicative of a vague, looming threat and just part of the familiar background noise of daily life. A recent suggestion by prominent public health experts to develop a “risk threshold” for respiratory illnesses as we pivot to a “new normal” with Covid makes this analogy all the more striking.
This outcome would be bad both for our political life and for our fight against Covid. Rather than backsliding further into this dysfunctional new normal, we should be having an open and honest debate in our public square about whether and when the threat posed by Covid moves out of the realm of the extraordinary and into the realm of the ordinary.
Is Covid still an existential threat, requiring crisis policies and extraordinary collective action? Or has it become just another complex societal problem that, like many other public health threats, demands policies that allow for variation according to the particularities of circumstances and need?
The vexing moment we are in is that we are fighting precisely over whether we are still in a crisis moment — even while the extraordinary form of politics that comes along with a crisis has long since passed. And this means that those who believe we are still in an extraordinary moment will have to persuade everyone else by ordinary political means. They will have to give a clear sense of what we should be trying to accomplish together. In short, we will all need to figure out a way to do pandemic politics in a very different — and in some ways much more familiar, if often frustrating — mode, one that requires both persuasion and compromise.
As for our elected officials, they will have to articulate a clear objective, and chart a course to victory. If eradicating Covid is impossible — as we are now told — what, then, constitutes success? Keeping case loads below a given threshold? Maintaining health care capacity? “Decoupling” hospitalizations from cases (so that new waves of infections no longer come with a strained health care system)? Lowering the mortality rate? Vaccinating every man, woman, and child? At what point is our enemy defeated? These questions were always pertinent, but the unifying force of tornado politics initially pushed them to the margins.
Two years in, defining victory is urgent now more than ever, because the extraordinary measures we have taken to combat Covid were, quite reasonably, understood by many Americans to be just that: extraordinary. They cannot be sustained indefinitely, particularly when their objective remains amorphous. Failure to articulate a clear path to victory risks embroiling our pandemic politics in a perpetual state of polarization while undermining the policies needed to achieve victory, however we define it. If our leaders fail to act now, it is not just Covid that will become our “new normal” — it will also be this state of political dysfunction.
Is This Still an Emergency?