This has led many to wonder why partisanship has become so strong in the United States that people will not listen to experts, even at the risk of their own health. But there is a broader distrust that we need to understand. I recognized it while reading a book that is not about covid-19 at all but sheds strong light on the situation. Explaining why so many people across the West have rejected the government establishment, Michael Lind writes, “The issue is not the issue. . . . The issue is power. Social power exists in three realms — government, the economy, and the culture. Each of these three realms of social power is the site of class conflict.”
Lind’s book, “The New Class War,” argues that the best way to understand America today is through the lens of class conflict, which has been sharpened by the rise of an “overclass” that dominates the three spheres he mentions. In all three, leaders tend to be urban, college-educated professionals, often with a postgraduate degree. That makes them quite distinct from much of the rest of the country. Only 36 percent of Americans have a bachelor’s degree, and only 13 percent have a master’s or more. And yet, the top echelons everywhere are filled with this “credentialed overclass.”
For many non-college-educated people, especially those living in rural areas, there is a deep alienation from this new elite. They see the overclass as enacting policies that are presented as good for the whole country but really mostly benefit people from the ruling class, whose lives have gotten better over the past few decades while the rest are left behind. In this view, trade and immigration help college-educated professionals who work for multinational companies but hurt blue-collar workers. So when they hear from “experts” about the inevitability of globalization and technological change and the need to accept it, they resist. It does not resonate with their lived experience.
Let’s look at the covid-19 crisis through this prism. Imagine you are an American who works with his hands — a truck driver, a construction worker, an oil rig mechanic — and you have just lost your job because of the lockdowns, as have more than 36 million people. You turn on the television and hear medical experts, academics, technocrats and journalists explain that we must keep the economy closed — in other words, keep you unemployed — because public health is important. All these people making the case have jobs, have maintained their standards of living and in fact are now in greater demand. They feel as though they are doing important work. You, on the other hand, have lost your job. You feel a sense of worthlessness, and you’re terrified about your family’s day-to-day survival. Is it so hard to understand why people like this might be skeptical of the experts?
The covid-19 divide is a class divide. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report last year on the “job flexibilities” of U.S. employees. Of the top 25 percent of income earners, more than 60 percent can stay home and still do their jobs. Of the bottom 25 percent, fewer than 10 percent can do the same. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he understands that maintaining these guidelines is “inconvenient.” For many people, they are not just inconvenient; they are life-shattering. Not all of those who work on the front lines or work with their hands are Trump voters — but all understand that it is a luxury to be able to work from home.
No one in the United States or elsewhere can claim to know the right way to move ahead. Even Fauci acknowledged that, when he was asked whether schools should open. “I don’t have an easy answer to that. I just don’t,” he said. “Situations regarding school will be very different in one region versus another.” Regarding the economy, he noted, “I don’t give advice about economic things. I don’t give advice about anything other than public health.” He’s right to acknowledge the limits of any one area of expertise.
So let’s all recognize that we need to hear many voices as we make these difficult decisions, and that those making the decisions need to have empathy for all Americans — those whose lives are at risk, but also those whose lives have been turned upside down in other ways by this horrible disease.