Can victory over the pandemic bridge the trust gap?

Breakdown in Americans’ trust in government dates back to Iraq War

A protester demonstrates in front of the White House in April 2020. The tens of millions of Americans who refuse to take COVID-19 seriously are indicative of something deeper than partisan divisions, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A protester demonstrates in front of the White House in April 2020. The tens of millions of Americans who refuse to take COVID-19 seriously are indicative of something deeper than partisan divisions, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 4, 2021 at 6:00am

NEW YORK — A year ago, as the coronavirus ravaged the city and ambulance sirens replaced the rumble of subways, I grew emotional every night at 7 p.m. as I and my Manhattan neighbors leaned out of our apartment windows to cheer for the health workers fighting the pandemic.

This weekend, my block of the Upper West Side witnessed a small, yet inspiring, event that would have been unfathomable in May 2020. In a bright-blue tent on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store, the city was operating a no-appointment, no-ID-required clinic dispensing the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to any adult who wanted it.

Pop-up vaccination sites are sprouting all over the nation as governments at all levels begin to move into the difficult phase of mass inoculations — reaching those who are hesitant, fearful or skeptical of authority figures.

Yes, it is uplifting that almost half of American adults have received at least one injection and roughly one-third are fully vaccinated. But it is also chilling that 26 percent of Americans, according to a recent CNN poll, say they have no intention of ever getting the vaccine.

This stubborn resistance is the part of the pandemic story that was never envisioned by the authors of science fiction novels and the creators of movies. The miraculous appearance everywhere in America of three safe, effective vaccines was supposed to be the end of the tale — and not just a chapter in the muddled middle.

Our own worst enemy

Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina sociologist who has been one of the smartest analysts throughout the pandemic, made a telling admission in a weekend essay for subscribers on Substack.

“Sociologically, I am shaken,” she confessed, before going on to explain, “The group-think, the institutional resistance and inertia, the cognitive biases, the social dynamics … I know about them all! But [what] I’ve been truly surprised most is how much stronger than I thought these dynamics were, even in a crisis.”

This is not a prelude to my launching a standard liberal attack on the right-wing denial of science, although that remains a major problem. Rather the great midcentury cartoon character Pogo got it right when he declared in another context, “We have met the enemy and He is us.”

A sudden crisis, devastating all of us, was supposed to foster national unity. It, of course, happened after Pearl Harbor when the isolationists in both parties quickly supported the war effort. And I will always remember the American flags flying everywhere during those mournful days after 9/11.

When the global challenge of climate change merely produced politics as usual, it was easy to theorize that this paralysis was caused by the slow-moving nature of the crisis. If the worst scenarios would not manifest themselves until, say, 2040, it was easy for policymakers to convince themselves that they could deal with the rising global temperatures next year.

But the pandemic was real, immediate and threatened everyone. While those over 60 were by far the most likely to die, many younger adults endured devastating bouts of the virus, with some still dealing with “long haul” symptoms months later.

Yet to this day, tens of millions of Americans refuse to take COVID-19 seriously. Donald Trump’s denialism was a major initial factor, but the problem did not end with the 45th president’s exile to Mar-a-Lago. A few Fox News evening hosts, no matter how repugnant their views, do not have the power to convince one-quarter of adult Americans to resist vaccination.

Beyond partisanship

Something is going on that is much deeper than partisan divisions. According to the CNN poll, 44 percent of Republicans refuse to be inoculated. But so do 28 percent of independents and 8 percent of Democrats.

Hopefully, these numbers will come down since poll answers are not perfect predictors of future behavior. But vaccine resistance is inextricably linked to the question of trust.

At an administration briefing last Friday, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy ticked off some of the reasons why American were skeptical of vaccines. “Sometimes because there’s misinformation that they’ve encountered,” he said. “Sometimes because they’ve had a bad experience with the health care system, and they’re wondering whom to trust. And some have just heard lots of different news … and they want to hear from someone they trust.”

Instead of a trust fund, we have a trust gap. And it is fast becoming a trust chasm.

Everyone has their own theory, but I am inclined to date the breakdown in trust in authority figures to the Iraq War and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Any lingering belief that the rich and powerful know best should have been erased by the 2008 financial meltdown — and the culture of greed that fostered it.

As politics became more poisonous (and if you have any doubts, just ask John Boehner), faith in Washington’s ability to solve problems eroded. And if you think this was accidental just ask Mitch McConnell.

The erosion of trust, the pandemic, political paralysis and Trump in the White House all combined to create the most grievous threat to American democracy since the darkest days of the Depression. If you think that’s hyperbolic, recall Jan. 6.

The hope — and, yes, there is some — is that the gradual, but almost certain, victory over the pandemic will restore some of the faith in government trust that has eroded over the last 20 years.

When little miracles like vaccination tents can materialize on the same block where just a year ago I feared for the future, then maybe this will be a glorious decade after all.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.