The last thing this polarized Republic needs is, well, more polarization, but that is what we are contracting from the pandemic. Americans, irrespective of region, broadly want the same things, such as safety, a return to normalcy, and an end to dependence on China for medical supplies, but they differ in the depth of their experiences with the pandemic.
Rather than rallying the nation, COVID-19 has amplified every fissure in this society from class to race, but perhaps most of all regarding geography. This reflects, in large part, the different experiences felt in various localities and the differences in how economies function from region to region.
On one hand there is the New York City urban area, which has suffered roughly 40 percent of fatalities, and bore the brunt of the crisis. Places outside New York with the most deaths have been central cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, where the vast majority of deaths have been endured by African Americans living in crowded, low income districts.
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In past circumstances (after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina), Americans responded with their customary generosity. New Yorkers, in particular, were seen as heroic, and for a short while Rudy Giuliani, hard as it is to believe now, was “America’s Mayor.” Not this time. Only a person just arrived from Mars would see New York Mayor Bill De Blasio as an inspiring figure, although his nemesis, Andrew Cuomo, has gained some national street cred.
The polarized reaction to the pandemic reflects already established patterns of partisan group-think, particularly in the dominant mainstream media. In early times a pandemic would inspire a surge of unity akin to 9/11 among Americans — even journalists. But the never-ending battle between bombastic narcissist Donald Trump and the equally self-indulgent media seemingly allows for no such genuflection to national interest.
To the political divide, add a major geographic one. Huge parts of the country have been barely impacted by the virus but almost everywhere has been hit by the lockdowns and social distancing policies. Not surprisingly, extending lockdown orders seems far less compelling in places where the pandemic’s impact has, so far, been minimal.
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This pattern of infection and fatalities almost completely parallels that of our political divides, with the generally GOP dominated countryside least impacted, the suburbs only somewhat so, and the big blue cities bearing the bulk of pain. By one estimate, states with Republican governors, mostly in the South, Intermountain West, and the Great Plains have suffered one-third the rate of fatalities seen in Democratic controlled states, which tend to be denser in their settlement patterns.
Throughout history, pandemics have tended to flourish more in crowded urban areas, as noted by historian William McNeil. Plagues particularly devastated great Renaissance cities like Venice, which suffered grievously from the waves of pestilence far more than relative backwaters in central Europe and Poland.
When they could, the Renaissance affluent fled to the countryside, as has now become widespread in the New York area. While the rich of Manhattan bleated their concern from the Hamptons or their country homes, massive suffering took place in the hardscrabble, crowded, and transit-dependent regions of the outer boroughs and in the train-dependent bedroom communities surrounding the city.
The pandemic has shown, in stark terms, how different New York is from most of the country. New York City is easily the densest place in America, and accounts for over 40 percent of all transit commuters in the nation. All of this contributes to what demographer Wendell Cox calls “exposure density ” as workers go from crowded apartments to packed subways and buses, and head to dense workplaces. Add to this the incompetence of city leaders, the poor sanitation of the subways, and an already creaking hospital system, and you have a formula for disaster.
In the United States as well as Europe and Asia, infections and fatalities generally rise with location close to the urban core. In an analysis of the pandemic’s epicenters, economist Jed Kolko estimates that the death rate in large urban counties to be well over twice those of high-density suburbs and four times higher than lower-density ones, with even larger gaps with smaller metros and rural areas, a finding largely confirmed as well by Brookings. Sprawling but heavily urbanized states like Texas, California and Florida have also experienced far lower infection and fatality rates than New York.
Much has been made of the notion that the pandemic will bring on “the death of small town America,” as suggested by the New York Times in a story based largely on anecdotes from one New Hampshire town. To a large extent, outside of ski resorts and health-challenged places such as Native American reservations or around meat-packing plants, the hinterland has so far avoided the worst impacts from the pandemic. Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota now all have among the lowest rates of COVID-related deaths in the country, twenty times lower or more than the pace of New York. These divisions have been so widespread that some states have tried to keep people from high-infection areas from entering their states.
The New York-based media can try to decry any opening, but as long as the federal system allows it, some states and regions seem ready to start, hopefully carefully, opening up. Some blue states, like comparatively safe California, will likely keep tight controls through the summer although Governor Gavin Newsom, to considerable public opposition, decided to greet May by closing the state’s parks and beaches. More importantly, Vice President Biden’s medical advisor, Ezekiel Emmanuel, would keep these regimes in place as long as twelve to eighteen months. Some environmentalists, a powerful force among Democrats, even see the lockdown as a “test run” for their proposals to achieve “degrowth” by essentially wiping out much of current discretionary spending.
It Matters What You Do For A Living
Levels of lethality naturally shape political perceptions and priorities. So too does the way in which people make their living. In smaller towns and cities, the economy tends to be more connected to production — in factories, warehouses, farms, mines, and the energy sector. These industries are not well suited to “social distancing,” although they may have great potential to grow in the post-pandemic era as we become more dependent on filling online orders, while manufacturing shifts back here from China and the U.S. becomes fully energy self-sufficient.
But right now many of these industries are hurting. Manufacturing-oriented Michigan, as a recent Heartland Forward study showed, has suffered among the highest jump in unemployment claims in the nation.
Energy, already targeted by progressives for extinction, also faces a huge drop as people around the world drive less and hunker down. The collapse of fracking could devastate economies from Pennsylvania to Texas. Similarly, with restaurants sidelined, many agricultural enterprises are in crisis, while aerospace production, widely seen as a hope in southern states like South Carolina and across mid-America, could face a decade of decline.
In contrast, far less impacted are those “symbolic” professions that dominate the cosmopolitan centers on the coasts. As local papers die, restaurants, Main Street shops and factories shutter, the national and international media continues to function from their apartments or country houses. Financial analysts can also work from home, as many professionals, even doctors, have found ways to work remotely. This could constitute as much as 37 percent of the workforce.
At the same time, there remains a concentration of low-wage workers in big cities who constitute the precariat, a modern proletariat that labors largely in service industries, logistics, and medical practices. Many of these have little in the way of savings and are particularly vulnerable, some losing their jobs and others suffering potential exposure due the nature of their work, particularly if forced to commute on a crowded bus or subway.
The Coming Lockdown Power Struggle
Politicians looking to open the economy tend to claim their policies are based on “science,” but their decisions remain influenced by politics and special interest. In the small towns and suburbs of the south, the Midwest, and the Plains, there is not much appetite to pace their recovery on the needs of New York, much less the wan hopes of environmentalists that the lockdown presages a significant downsizing of the economy.
A longer lockdown, it can be argued, may save the lives of some, but it would also murder America’s grassroots economy. Rising concern about finances has already sparked protests over long term lockdown policies, particularly in those areas that have largely escaped the worst of the pandemic.
This will inform divergences in how states and regions handle re-opening their economies. States outside the coasts, like Ohio and Texas, may seek to return sooner to patterns of production and growth that were working before the pandemic. On the other hand, some blue states may see the reopening not as an economic imperative, but as a way to double down on progressive policies.
California, for example, has placed a green oligarch billionaire, Tom Steyer, in charge of the recovery. As he directs the “recovery,” Steyer is certain to push the climate agenda to its extreme, threatening many non-tech businesses already reeling under California’s brutal regulatory regime. In New York, corporate shill McKinsey, one of the prime architects and advocates of off-shoring dependence on China, will outline New York’s recovery, something that may be greeted with enthusiasm by developers and big businesses but should send a shudder down the spines of anyone outside the elites in the big coastal cities.
Given these differences, some degree of flexibility by region and state, where localities can adjust their regulations to their own realities, seems logical. This way, as suggested by Hong Kong epidemiologist Gabriel Leung, they can impose tightening and loosening based on current trends in infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities. It is indeed unreasonable to ask states like Montana with to lock down in the same manner as New York or even California.
To be sure, strict long-term “stay at home” orders may have reduced risks in some places, but less intrusive policies in states such as Texas and Florida have experienced generally low rates, and are now slowly preparing to open their economies. The experiences with regimes more focused on vulnerable populations, such as those being adopted in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, might offer even progressive locales a way to open up safely while restarting their economies.
The key here, if we want to remain the United States, is allowing decision-making to remain at the local level where conditions now vary widely. The pandemic has already expanded the power of governments at all levels to unimagined heights. But if this becomes a policy driven from Washington, the threat to the federal system could be profound.
This could become a reality, particularly if the unsteady, chaotic Trump Administration is replaced by a federal government determined to use the pandemic, or climate change, to impose draconian regulations on a national basis. If this occurs, particularly after a not-inconceivable GOP disaster this fall, we could push the Republic closer to disunion than any time in the past 150 years.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, will be out from Encounter late this spring. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin
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