To paraphrase, these are the times that try our souls. And contrary to the partisan political sniping that continues to define news coverage, there is a lot of soul-searching going on in America. While cable news and the opinion pages wonder about just how volatile the electorate really is in the new pandemic age and what it all means for the fall election, voters are asking very different questions.
For political pundits, the game goes on, if on a slightly altered board. But for most people, this is anything but a game. It doesn’t get any more “real life” than this.
More than two months of confinement for millions of Americans, scary jobs numbers and confusing headlines about the severity and scale of the virus, have people reassessing almost everything and polls right now are a reflection of an electorate in a state of uncertainty, trying to process the upside-down world in which they find themselves.
For weeks, they’ve seen predictions come and go, some right and many wrong. They listen to government edicts and information, designed to educate and comfort and they do. But then, as the data changes on this unknown virus, so do the solutions, and that’s confusing to people.
Should we shut down or open? How do I keep my children safe but still learning? Will my job be there to go back to?
The level of disruption they are experiencing is on a scale they’ve never seen before. Businesses are dying and so are people they know. No one is flying. Hotels are shutting down, and going to the movie theaters may be going the way of Blockbuster.
People aren’t trying to frame their response to the next election; they are trying to understand where the country is going and what that means for them personally and for their families and their communities. What we are seeing is sociological disruption at a huge scale. Shutting down the economy. Stuck at home for more than eight weeks. Kids without school. No restaurants. No sports. Colleges and universities shut down. In other words, life as we knew it has come to a halt.
What people really want
As we begin to reopen, we’re now entering uncharted territory — moving toward a new normal. We just don’t know what that sociological resolution is going to look like and how it will impact us as a country.
Beyond hardcore partisans, people are much more interested in who can lead in this new normal, not the color of a face mask or the appropriateness of a golf outing. Life for most Americans is much more serious than the less-than-serious media’s idea of news, and they are looking at their world through a new lens, wondering what a post-pandemic America will look like and knowing deep down that it can never be the same.
They are already looking at health in a different way — no longer defining personal health as whether one is sick or not and whether that illness is covered or not. What this virus has taught us is that simply being “unsick” isn’t enough. Comorbidities and underlying conditions can make a person just as vulnerable.
Polling shows that 70 percent of people will now focus more on the quality of their health going forward. That’s a huge leap in thinking that opens the door for greater acceptance of health care innovation by both patients and medical providers. We’ve already seen a surge in the use of telemedicine as hospitals and clinics, closed to in-patient visits because of COVID-19, turn to new technology to deliver needed care and keep themselves afloat financially.
People are also looking at education from a new perspective — surprised at how unprepared our schools have been for this national emergency and at every level from K-12 to our universities. Given that our educational system is supposed to be creating a 21st-century workforce, it’s more than ironic that when forced to address a 21st-century problem, many of our schools and educators found themselves back in the 20th century. For many parents, having their children learning from home has been a sobering wake-up call.
So have the huge job losses we’ve seen in what has been an incredibly short period of time. The economic success of recent years makes the reality of millions of people suddenly without work all the more alarming as voters watch the economy in the process of deep change. What will the future be like for a range of industries, from the airlines to real estate to hotels and restaurants? What happens to the millions of people employed if industries shrink or disappear entirely.
What will be the likely impact of the country becoming much more comfortable online? Will there be less business travel, fewer conferences and more online corporate interactions? At the end of December, Zoom had 10 million users. By the end of April, a company most people had never heard of pre-coronavirus, had 300 million users. Zoom now has a net worth larger than the seven biggest airlines put together. The dramatic shift to online from health care delivery to shopping to education and business has the potential to affect both the economy and the culture.
Polls or no polls, anyone who tells you today they know what is going to happen in November is really just guessing. It may be an educated guess but a guess nonetheless. Rarely, if ever, have we seen the electorate struggling as they are today to make sense of the enormous sociological disruption changing the country and their lives — perhaps forever. And to have this happen in the middle of an already fractious election only adds to the uncertainty and worry most people are feeling, a fact that politicians on both sides and the media ought to consider.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.