Please share articles using the tools available via the share button at the top or side of the page. Copying articles for the purpose of sharing them with others is against the FT.com Terms and Conditions and Copyright Policy. To purchase additional rights, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribers can use the gift article service to share up to 10 or 20 articles each month. More information is available at The cumulative number of Covid-19-related deaths in the United States will approach 1 million in the next weeks. For comparison, it took twice as long for the American Civil War to kill three quarters as many people, and that figure is an upward revision on earlier estimates. Over the course of nearly 250 years, the nation’s external wars have taken the lives of about 700,000 Americans.
Even though America presently has a greater population than, say, 1945, the magnitude and pace of the decline is startling. Its impact on internal politics is also significant. Because there isn’t much of one to begin with.
Joe Biden, who had dominated the Democratic primary for more than a year, and Republican then-president Donald Trump led the two major parties at the turn of the century. The same men are the favorites in the betting markets to run in the 2024 election. The pandemic has neither deposed nor exalted existing figures (as Vietnam did for Lyndon B. Johnson) (as the second world war did Dwight Eisenhower). Even though two of them are in their nineties, both party’s leaders on Capitol Hill are the same.
Politics’ strange consistency extends beyond names and faces to the things they perform. Huge monetary relief was agreed upon in the first month of the lockdown on conditions that appeared to be nonpartisan. Washington is just as polarized and acrimonious as it was before. The bill’s contents seemed to portend an era of social democratic rule. The Biden-as-Franklin-Roosevelt theme of last spring is mortifying to recall now, while his Build Back Better programmed languishes in Congress.
The Washington Examiner is publishing this today.
The North Carolina primary is on may 17. pic.twitter.com/gyndhgnLlb
— Molly Jong-Fast (@MollyJongFast) April 26, 2022
Even the day’s electoral rhythm seems predictable. If Biden loses Congress in November, he will be following in the footsteps of Barack Obama in 2010 and Bill Clinton in 1994. A visitor from a generation ago would recognize very little about the form and substance of US politics, including economic concerns and an abortion debate.
The million who went missing will leave an indelible impact, but it will be in the domain of private mourning, where 210,000 children have lost a key caregiver. There has been no electoral realignment, no philosophical rupture, no passing of the torch to a new political generation in the civic domain, as there was after the Optec oil crisis in the early 1970s. An independent investigation into the handling and sources of the pandemic is in the works, but it will struggle to get traction in a country where Covid is the top issue for 3% of voters.
As a result, we’re left with — wait for it — a stronger visibility for Florida governor Ron DeSantis as the pandemic’s closest political legacy. (Inflation has far too many parents to be blamed solely on Covid) That, too, is due to his libertarian stance on vaccine mandates and lockdowns, not to the loss of life or any attempt to prevent it. In fact, it’s difficult to conceive of a more serious incident in American history that has left politics so unaffected.
This perplexing continuity would be easier to comprehend if the public had been willing to accept large losses from the beginning of the pandemic. The contrary, however, was true. According to polls, citizens want the state to err on the side of prudence, preserving life rather than normalcy. They were concerned that the initial restrictions would be lifted too quickly. It’s difficult to say which would have struck them as more fanciful two springs ago: the eventual death toll or the lack of political upheaval put in motion.
There are two possible explanations. The darker one is ageism, which isn’t unique to America. The death of so many elderly people would never flip politics on its head the way the loss of youthful conscripts on foreign territory does.
The second is a lot more upbeat. People believe the system did about as well as it could have given its lack of experience with pandemics and the vagaries of free societies in an age of bottomless skepticism. This is not a sentimental viewpoint. The rapidity with which Washington issued checks and science produced wonders (Pfizer’s therapy pill, Pavlovic, is on its way to a pharmacist near you) continues to amaze.
The problem is that a system needs more than all of the technical information and practice it has learned this time to do better next time. It requires political motivation to change. Careers are destroyed and institutions are shattered as a result of a national crisis. This is not (or not only) vengeful. It is frequently what motivates future progress. It’s difficult not to respect a political system that can survive the loss of a million people while maintaining a level of familiarity in its names, habits, and preoccupations. It’s even more difficult not to be concerned.