By Paul Rozycki
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like the most important things on the horizon were the 2020 campaign, the Flint City Council, Eric Mays, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. The national campaigns were heating up, impeachment was a hot topic, and Democrats were in the process of choosing from among nearly two dozen candidates, as they bounced from one primary or caucus to the next. The economy was doing well, the stock market was at record levels, and Donald Trump appeared to be a formidable opponent for any Democrat.
That seems so long ago. Yet, at this writing, it was just over two weeks ago that those were the top issues in Flint and around the nation. Today, with the events of the last week or two, it seems like all those things were a decade in the past. At this point, we have no real idea what the world will look like when the virus has run its course, but almost certainly it will be different, perhaps dramatically so.
With the risk that any prediction may be wildly off within days, here are a few thoughts and questions about how the coronavirus pandemic may impact our politics in the months to come.
How will it change our campaigns?
American politics has always been a contact sport. Pack ‘em into the hall, kiss the babies, and shake all the hands you can. With his long history, Joe Biden has taken his share of criticism for his old-style “press the flesh” kind of politics. Political conventions were always the place where face-to-face pol- itics roused the faithful, and kicked off the road show of the national campaign, with a flurry of stump speeches, bands, balloons, and banners. Will we have the traditional Democratic and Republican conventions this summer, or some “virtual” events? Local activists went door-to-door to drop off campaign flyers and greet potential voters. Will they be able to this year?
Will this all be in the past? Will our political campaigns be totally on television and social media?
We’ll see, but it’s worth noting that the public rallies that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders had in Flint, just before our March 10 primary, may be the last ones we’ll see for a while.
Many states, including Michigan, have made it much easier to vote absentee, and an increasing number of voters have done so. Will going to the polls in person be a thing of the past? How will candidates obtain signatures to get on the ballot if they need to keep a social distance from others? How will supporters of ballot proposals gather signatures?
Issues for 2020
Even before the coronavirus pandemic took off, health care was usually ranked as one of the top issues of the year. Did you like Joe Biden’s support for Obamacare, or did you lean toward Bernie’s Medicare for all? Or did you want to scrap it all, with Donald Trump’ s plans, whatever they were? It’s hard to say where the chips may fall, but after the American medical system scrambles to meet the pandemic challenge, it’s difficult to say there is no need for dramatic change in how we deliver medical care. Right now, even most other issues — foreign policy, immigration, climate change, and the economy — are all linked to the coronavirus pandemic in some way.
The classic formula for winning a campaign has been James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” which helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992. Donald Trump’ s strongest argument for reelection has been the economy. He’s bragged about the strong stock market, and low unemployment rate at every one of his rallies. Now the Dow Jones average has blown off a third of its value, and is below where it was when Trump was inaugurated.
With the national shutdown of so many businesses, the unemployment rate, which was at a record low, may approach or surpass the record-high levels of the great recession a decade ago. How many businesses will be able to survive a long shutdown? It remains to be seen if any of the proposed trillion-dollar stimulus plans will change those numbers.
On the local level
In Flint, the biggest issue in the past was whether or not Eric Mays would be arrested and kicked out of another city council meeting, and how much bickering would take place before it happened. With City Hall closed, that may be a moot issue for awhile. Yet, beyond the endless meetings and conflict in the council, there were major worries that faced the city:
Would there be enough revenue coming in to fund our current governmental activities? Could we find the funds to pay our police officers, firefighters and other city workers, and still take care of the large number of retirees who served a much bigger city in years past? Similar challenges are also facing Genesee County and the Flint Community Schools. No one can predict the full impact of the layoffs and closings generated by the pandemic, but the financial prospects for local governments are very ominous.
With the closing of all of Michigan’s K-12 schools and our colleges and universities, all students face questions about their education. When will classes resume? Will the online courses count for K-12 graduation or college degrees?
The Flint water crisis
Now in its sixth year, the Flint water crisis never seems to quite go away, and never seems to be quite solved. There are still more pipes to fix, and the residents are waiting to see if there will be any legal action taken against those who caused the crisis, as the legal deadline for filing charges approaches. Distrust of the water system is still high. Will the resolution of the water crisis be lost in the tumult over the coronavirus pandemic?
What will it do to us?
There are a thousand questions about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on politics — most of them unanswerable for now. But perhaps the most important questions go beyond politics or the economy. What effect will this have on us? Like the Flint water crisis, will it erode trust in the government? Will it force us all to separate from others, and live our lives solely in a digital world, forever on Facebook, or always six feet apart? Or will the crisis bring us together in ways that we haven’t seen for some time? Will we find the ability to deal with this without the rancor and division that has been a part of our national life for decades? Or will it divide us further?
In the first weeks of the pandemic, there is evidence for either outcome.
On the plus side, there are many stories of individuals going the extra mile to help those in need. Community groups have organized food drives for seniors and others. Neighbors have volunteered to go shopping for others. Not enough can be said about the dedication of doctors, nurses, police, and firefighters, as well as those who must serve the public in other ways — the store clerks, mail carriers, truck drivers, and many others who can’t afford to isolate themselves, as the rest of us can.
On the other hand, there are too many stories of people hoarding (and reselling) food, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and cleansers. There are stories of retailers price-gouging during the crisis. And there are a few stories about the increased sales of guns and ammo. I’m not sure what they will be doing with these. (Your toilet paper or your life???)
How we respond may define us long after the coronavirus is medical history.
EVM Political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.