In the past month, coronavirus has taken over every aspect of our lives: work, school, home, and even politics. Its political implications are wide-ranging and far-reaching. We sat down with Conor Donnan of the University of Pennsylvania to discuss.
Conor is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania and a Graduate Fellow at the Perry World House. He publishes work on Irish and American policy at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Conor is the Vice-Chair of the Board of Someone to Tell It To, a non-profit that cultivates meaningful relationships through compassionate listening, and was a Campus Corps Leader for Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders.
China and Coronavirus
Joe Schuman: Thanks for joining us today, Conor. Coronavirus has affected every facet of our lives, including both international and domestic politics. Since you’re a foreign policy expert, I’d like to start with the international realm. There is a narrative of “East versus West” in the discourse surrounding the pandemic. Despite having the worst outbreak initially, China has been reporting extremely low case counts for the past few months and South Korea had some of the best results in “flattening the curve.” Meanwhile, Europe and the United States are getting hammered by coronavirus. I certainly have some takeaways about this narrative, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
Conor Donnan: Thanks, Joe. It is a great question. I do a lot of work in policy, but my professional training is as a historian. I do believe there are divides between the East and West based on their historical and cultural experiences with public health crises. But there also have been divides within the regions we call the East and the West. The reaction from Singapore, South Korea, and China was very different, for example.
The memory of SARS in places such as China and Singapore ensured that governments and citizens of those nations were more prepared for a total pandemic than the people in America or Europe. I spoke to many of my Singaporean colleagues at the beginning of the pandemic and they were much more concerned than my family in Ireland or America, who saw coronavirus as media pandemonium and exaggeration in the same category as Swine Flu or Ebola. I am originally from Ireland. Irish people did not react with such drastic measures to coronavirus at first because SARS was not a major event within the country. The historical experience of countries like Singapore and China with large-scale epidemics meant that the citizens at least took it more seriously early on.
Having said that, China’s initial reaction involved covering up the death toll, silencing whistle blowers, and locking down their population. The centralized and authoritarian nature of the regime was criticized for its harshness, but eventually the population lockdown flattened the curve resulting in praise among some Western news outlets. Sometimes these situations are oversimplified by the media and its viewers without understanding the complex nature of the strategy. I question the data coming out of China.
Joe: I also have a tough time believing numbers coming out of China. The Chinese Communist Party claims that the country skyrocketed to 80,000 cases, but for the past few weeks their case count has ground to an absolute halt. In a country with 1.3 billion people? With densely populated cities like Beijing and Shanghai? I have read a number of sources that suggest that China is not reporting asymptomatic cases even if they test positive. I suspect more discrepancies and distortions like that will come out over time.
I will concede, though, that Asia has in many ways reacted more effectively to the problem. While I object to the means of the Chinese reaction, it is hard to deny the ends even if the numbers are somewhat deflated. South Korea has engaged in mass testing and public campaigning to great effect. Whether it is from brute force or good governance, it does seem to me that Asia has been doing a better job in responding to the crisis than the West.
Conor: One final dynamic related to China is that coronavirus has shifted from a domestic policy issue to a foreign policy issue. Growth of the coronavirus has dwindled domestically and now the transmission is mostly coming from foreign nationals. This has allowed China to dub the virus as the “United States” coronavirus. When the problem was domestic the government tried to cover cases up. However, now that it is a “foreign” issue, we see the full power of the state media apparatus in motion. China has launched travel bans and stringent restrictions on people within the country. China Air was testing people four times for the coronavirus prior to flights before the travel ban came into place. The transformation from “domestic” to “foreign” has really liberated the state to act in different ways.
The West Versus the Rest
Conor: I think we both agree that the East versus West trope is oversimplified and does not account for the social, cultural, political, and economic backgrounds of different countries and regions. Countries have different forms of government and different social contracts with their citizens. For example, I would argue that the East versus West model falls apart when you compare the response of countries such as Singapore and Germany. Singapore and Germany are much more aligned in their reaction because their cultural and political structures are built around a strong paternalist norm. Angela Merkel in Germany and Minister Lawrence Wong in Singapore have used somewhat patronizing language in media interviews. Singapore has implemented travel restrictions, called back many of the Singaporeans aboard, and tracked its citizens.
Joe: I agree that the unique historical and socioeconomic mores of a country and a region impact their response. When thinking about the European and American response, I am reminded of the quote by Winston Churchill: “You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.” I think that quote aptly describes the Western response to this pandemic. In the United States, our reaction has highlighted the virtues and the vices of a federalized system. I have been disappointed by the federal government’s response, but at the same time I think that the state and local governments as well as private industry and the non-profit sector have tended to respond to the pandemic effectively.
Conor: That is a fantastic quote. I do think that there is some truth to the suggestion that the federal system in the United States allows states and local government to shine even if the federal government is incompetent. At the beginning of this pandemic, the Trump Administration was calling it a Democratic hoax and suggesting that the pandemic was not an important problem. The federal government did not act swiftly and the coronavirus began to spread. Luckily, the states were able to create their own measures to counteract the spread of the coronavirus. Governors such as Larry Hogan and Andrew Cuomo instituted tough measures to halt the spread. The good thing about the political system in America is the fact that state and local government can step up in the face of power vacuums created by irresponsible federal policies.
Joe: Perhaps the big question about the U.S. system after the pandemic is the proper balance between federal and state government. The Chinese government is highly centralized and are able to impose rules, including travel restrictions, on the entire country on a whim. Trump has tried similar measures, including reportedly a potential quarantine around New York. At the macro scale, there might be advantages to quarantining New York. But wouldn’t it be unjust to the people of New York who did not have the coronavirus and were able to leave? Or someone who wants to visit a dying loved one? It is not clear that the federal government has this authority, anyways.
Conor: Agreed. It is not clear that the American constitution gives presidents the ability to do that. In fact, I believe most of the policing powers are vested in local authorities and states. It would be a fascinating legal question.
Joe: There would undoubtedly be legal challenges to such an act. But perhaps equally as importantly, I think it would also be politically untenable for a politician or political party to attempt impose a federal lockdown. Americans would object on the grounds of individual liberties and the party would face electoral consequences the next election.
Joe: I wanted to ask you: what is the situation in the European Union during this pandemic?
Conor: The European Union has had a difficult time tackling the pandemic since the entire structure of the Union is based on freedom of movement and a unified economy. The EU has proposed that all non-essential travel be suspended to the European Union for 30 days, but the real issue is about movement within the EU. Some countries have tried to tackle this by issuing stay at home orders, but an EU-wide travel ban between countries has not been instituted because it flies in the face of the values of the system.
There have been very interesting implications for Brexit, as well. In my opinion, Boris Johnson has been one of the most incompetent international leaders during this pandemic. His government’s inactivity and incoherent policies allowed the coronavirus to spread faster than expected. Many European countries such as Portugal and Greece have attempted to ban UK visitors, but the European Union has not included them in any travel ban. Additionally, the lack of direction from Britain stands in direct contrast to the Irish government’s response. The Irish government created strong measures to curb the growth of the coronavirus, but this has been undermined by the fact that Johnson’s government was inactive in Northern Ireland. It created a larger problem because the Irish government does not have complete jurisdiction over the region and Northern Irish Unionists often blindly follow the policies of the British government. The Irish parties demanded action at a time when the British did not take strong action. This is just one example of the type of complexities that Europe is facing.
Joe: We’ve talked about various countries and leaders around the world, from Boris Johnson to President Trump, Governor Hogan to Governor Cuomo. I feel that we are getting a real-time lesson about leadership in turbulent times, as Doris Kearns Goodwin would say. I am curious about your thoughts on the actions and reactions of the various international and domestic leaders throughout this crisis.
Conor: I saw a statistic recently that about 80% of Americans trust what they are hearing from public health experts and that the majority of Americans say that the most trusted public official is Andrew Cuomo. Whereas only about 30% believe the information coming from the President is correct. Recall that on March 10, Trump said the coronavirus was going to go away and that we need to stay calm. He said he wanted to open the country back up by Easter. Meanwhile, even parts of his own government, including the Pentagon, have been issuing warnings as far back as February 1st. Let me be clear. I am not someone who subscribes to Trump as a protest vote. There are a lot of different reasons why someone might like Trump, especially the neglect of the ordinary person by the politically elite. But I think what people want now is a leader who is firm and fair. Someone who is less emotionally driven but rather detached and level-headed. This is what has made Hogan and Cuomo so successful, in my opinion.
Joe: I want to respond to a couple things you said. I think your point about state and local officials having better responses and garnering more public trust is true beyond this coronavirus pandemic. As a general rule, Americans give a much higher approval rating to their state and local governments than to their federal government. There is interesting polling showing that Americans disapprove of the Federal Congress in general but approve of their specific Representative in particular. So perhaps what we are seeing is just the continuation of a trend.
I will note, though, that the federal government is much more than just President Trump. Obviously there are the political officials at the federal level whose response has been wanting—President Trump, Matt Gaetz, Devin Nunes, etc.— but then there is also Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General. These people are real medical professionals who know what they are talking about. So it is even a mixed bag on the political side. But then there are the federal agencies—Department of Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Health and Human Services—that, although far from perfect, have been doing important work throughout this crisis.
Joe: I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I think this crisis has interesting implications for the civil-military divide in our country. I am in the National Guard. A year ago, when I told that to some friends and family, they thought that I meant the Coast Guard. But I think now a lot more people know what the National Guard is since they are doing essential and high visibility work including constructing field hospitals, distributing medical supplies, and enforcing quarantines. All branches of the military are pitching in. The USNS Comfort being deployed to New York with 1,000 hospital beds, the Army Corps of Engineers building medical facilities, and countless other examples.
Conor: I completely agree. The DoD has the structural, infrastructural, and logistical expertise that has allowed it to respond to this crisis effectively. DoD is currently releasing a strategic storage of N-95 masks, as another example. DoD has been actually leading from the front internally in regards to prevention measures, including travel, meetings, social distancing, etc. So it can combat the coronavirus within its own organization as well as the rest of the country.
Joe: DoD certainly has world-class people, expertise, resources, capabilities that are now on display. And just to tie this discussion in a nice bow, I think something that DoD also has in spades is true leadership. So here you have a trusted, non-partisan, federal entity that the people know is trying to do the right thing, however imperfectly. Essentially, the polar opposite of politics in our country.
Coronavirus in 2020
Joe: I have to ask, and forgive me for the pun, not about COVID-19 … but about COVID 2020. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you think this will impact this election season.
Conor: I think coronavirus is definitely going to have a multi-layered impact on both the Democrats and the Republicans. Early on, each side was trying to politicize the crisis to attack the other party. Trump called it a Democratic hoax and the Democrats were saying that Trump wasn’t reacting effectively. It will be interesting to see which narrative ends up dominating. Trump’s approval ratings have actually gone up recently, which suggests that people are starting to believe that his response has been somewhat affective. I don’t believe that that is necessarily true.
There will be impacts to the election process itself. For example, how will we do voting in person if this continues on through November? There are fights in Congress as we speak about national mail in voting. We have already seen states delay Presidential primaries. There is particular worry about voter suppression in these conditions. This pandemic will only add to that fear.
I believe that politics is a game of narrative and momentum. You want to tell your story and sell it effectively and in doing so you want to pick up momentum and continue with your story. I think the narrative of coronavirus will matter in the election. I think something that may help Trump a little, despite his actual response, is that Biden’s momentum specifically and the Democratic party’s momentum in general has been halted. You don’t really see Biden on TV as much anymore because all you see is the pandemic. Meanwhile Trump is on every news station for the daily coronavirus task force press briefing. It can hinder the Democrats if they go too far on the attack during such a trying time for this country, because it can look like you are just playing politics as normal. No one wants to hear about presidential politics when they need to worry about their lives, their family’s safety, and their livelihood.
Joe: I am seeing the same polls regarding his rising popularity. I attribute it to the “war time” President effect. People are more willing to rally around a leader in a time of crisis, regardless of how the actual response is. For me, what will determine how people view his administration’s response will be the longer term economic effects. If we are in a recession in six months, I think Trump’s reelection is very much at risk. If we have a short recession this spring and we are back to where we were by the fall, I think he comes out of this stronger. I suspect that is why Trump, Republicans, and all the budget chickenhawks on Capital Hill were happy to inject $2 trillion into the economy. I think part of that has to be for political reasons.
Conor: I agree. At the end of the day, and this is unfortunate, when the coronavirus is all said and done, Trump won’t be judged on case count and death tolls. He will be judged on the economy: how has the stock market reacted and how many small businesses have gone under. For better or for worse, the average person is more worried about their job because they have to provide for their family. If Trump can make the economy bounce back in any significant way, people will probably reelect him. I could see that being an effective strategy.
Joe: I must say that, as much as I disagree with “compromise” when it means avoiding tough choices (e.g. spending money we don’t have as in the CARES Act), I am aware that what happens generally during existential crises is that countries can come together in a way that would not happen otherwise. The country has proven that it can unify when there is a greater enemy. From my very biased Divided We Fall perspective, I would love to see the President, be it Trump or Biden, take advantage of this opportunity to bring the country together.
Conor: I think what this pandemic will show us is that, when it comes down to it, you can’t sustain political institutions with divisiveness. You eventually need people to rally together to work on common problems. You eventually realize people can get things done together.
Joe: I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for joining us, Conor.
Conor: Thanks for having me.
If you enjoyed this conversation, read more “spirited discussions” from Divided We Fall here.