Our democracy has profoundly failed during the COVID-19 crisis in how political and scientific elites have connected to each other and to the public. Most critically, as a series of surveys we have conducted in 50 states and the District of Columbia show, there is a disjuncture between where our political leaders are pushing us, what scientists are recommending, and what the people want.
We see the consequences of this disconnect in the widely discrepant policies of governments and responses of citizens across different states around the nation, and even across localities within states.
Early in the crisis-- in February-- there were dramatic and failed conversations between political leaders around the country and scientists about the approaching disaster. There was a particular failure to engage the public about the likely toll. It was not until Dr. Fauci’s Congressional testimony on March 11th that “many millions” could die “if we are complacent” and the release of the Imperial College report on March 16 indicating that 2.2 million in the US could die in the absence of interventions, that the public was truly engaged regarding the stakes and political leaders began to take aggressive actions. The Northeast, especially New York City, has paid a grim price as a result of the late move to shut down.
Similarly, our political-scientific discussions regarding mask wearing have been disastrous. It is now clear that masks can substantially reduce transmission of COVID-19; and if vigorously adhered to at a population level, might be enough to control the disease. However, initially our political-scientific elites recommended against wearing masks (perhaps out of a concern over possible shortages of medical-grade masks).
As a result, mask use was very low in the early parts of the crisis. As the science regarding the benefits of mask wearing has become clearer, mask use has trended upwards, even as other preventive behaviors have declined -- from 73% of Americans reporting wearing masks in late April to 83% now. Unfortunately, partisan politicians have transformed mask-wearing into an incipient statement of political identity, resulting in a growing partisan divide in their use, with 92% of Democrats reporting that they are wearing masks, compared to 74% of Republicans.
Other parts of the country -- fortunate that COVID-19 largely spared them early in the first wave -- are now repeating these errors. Their leaders have pushed for “reopening” before they had the disease contained at levels where they could hope to control spread through policies of contact tracing and isolation. The science is clear: unless we push COVID-19 to a point where each infected person, on average, infects less than one other person, the disease will continue to spread and grow. The spread may be slower than what we witnessed in March, but the eventual toll will still be tragically high.
The public’s preferences are also clear: Americans prioritize getting the disease under control before more aggressively reopening. From our survey, we see that generally the public opposes the rapid reopening we see across the country. In all 50 states sizable majorities oppose reopening immediately, and even in those states most supportive of reopening, the average survey respondent supports waiting 2-4 weeks. Small minorities report being willing to shop at a retail store (18%), go to a dine-in restaurant (13%), or use public transportation (8%).
Our political leaders may be keen to reopen. Yet, not enough people may be willing to follow to actually reboot the economy. Other countries hit hard by COVID-19, such as Spain and Denmark, are reopening because they were able to suppress the disease. We may be headed toward a perfect storm, reopening before the virus is under control, where enough people re-engage to sustain the spread of the virus, but not enough to resuscitate the moribund economy.
Perhaps as a consequence of this disconnect, trust in our government and all of our civic institutions to handle this crisis, is beginning to fray. There has been a decline in trust for all 11 institutions and groups that we have been asking about since April -- especially government institutions. The largest drop has been trust in the police (8 points) -- presumably because of the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, closely followed by Donald Trump, state government, the Congress, and the CDC. The exception is trust in hospitals, doctors, scientists, and researchers, which has remained relatively steady at 90+%. The public is listening to the scientists; and our political leaders seem to be listening to neither the public nor the scientists.
This gap between what the public wants and what the political system delivers may be more the rule than the exception, as recent political science research highlights. This disjuncture may, paradoxically, have fueled both the rise of Trump and the current protests in the streets. It may reflect the narrow and homogeneous set of people that elected leaders tend to consult. In our state of Massachusetts, for example, the Governor’s Reopening Advisory Board is made up largely of business leaders, with no voices representing the exposed and vulnerable members of society. This is a failure in democracy more generally; but especially so when the political system needs the large-scale cooperation of the public to achieve critical public health and economic goals. What we need at this moment is a vastly more robust three-way dialogue among our citizens, public health and economic experts, and political elites, about the next steps we need to take to save lives and reboot our economy. Much like a three-legged stool, if even one of those “legs” is absent from, or under-represented in, this critical conversation, the “stool” may collapse, resulting in another big failure.