The Panic over COVID-19 may cost Democrats the Election

Democratic strategists are worried sick of Donald Trump refusing to concede. That betrays a bit of a panic over a nothingburger. Yes, the loser has ritually conceded since 1896. The tradition is so strong that contenders do not deviate from the formal structure of the confession:

The defeated candidate comes out first. He thanks supporters, declares that their cause will live on, and acknowledges that the other side has prevailed. The victor begins his own remarks by honoring the surrender.

Barton Gellman, The Atlantic Monthly, November 2020.

This conservation of homology, of elements of performative speech arranged formally, attest to the ritual that surrounds the transition of power in the United States. The reenactment of this performative ritual is part of the reproduction of democracy in America. It will indeed be a sad day in the history of the American experiment if the loser were to refuse to concede. But it is not like Trump can actually hold on to power if he clearly loses. The trouble that is brewing this fall is of a different sort.

In his speech accepting the official nomination of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden listed “four crises” confronting the nation that the incoming administration would face. Besides the immediate challenges from the pandemic and the attendant recession, he listed racial justice and global warming. There is nothing random about the choice of the four crises. Entire armies of strategists, pollsters, focus group experts signed off on the list. Behind them were Democratic party operatives and power houses; bundlers and investors; and our Silicon Valley overlords. For that is indeed the Harris-Biden coalition — the senator from Silicon Valley is obviously the stronger party on the ticket. The speech was presumably cleared with all the veto players. We have no reason to doubt the competence of the Democratic Party elite. Yet, the list of crises reveals a very strange lacuna.


White working-class Americans began killing themselves in increasing numbers twenty years ago. Yet, it was not until five years ago that someone noticed. In 2015, Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper showing the all-cause mortality for middle-aged whites in the United States had been rising since 2000. In later work that controlled for confounding due to age differentials for which their original work had been criticized, Case and Deaton showed midlife all-cause mortality in the United States pull away from 2000, in the wrong direction, from other Anglo-Saxon countries.

Brookings, March 23, 2017.

The rise in mortality was, as they had originally documented, confined to non-Hispanic whites.

Brookings, March 23, 2017.

They documented two more facts of great political significance. First, these excess deaths were due to what they called “deaths of despair” — suicide, alcohol poisoning and drug overdose. Second, they were strongly class biased. More precisely, they showed that deaths of despair were not increasing among college-educated whites but concentrated among those with a high school diploma or less.

Brookings, March 23, 2017.

It has been shown that the bulk of the excess deaths have been due to the drug epidemic.

US Congress, Joint Economic Committee.

Drug overdose deaths have kept rising since Case and Deaton broke the story in 2015. The Wall Street Journal collected data that shows that the epidemic has intensified during the pandemic. We are on track to hit one hundred thousand deaths from drug overdose alone this year. That would be half as many as the death toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2020.

It is a fair bet that deaths of despair would be greater than the number of deaths due to COVID-19 at year’s end. Yet, the Democratic Party does not think that this is a major crisis facing the nation. Nor does the articulate elite or the professional class more generally. Indeed, have you seen anyone in the prestige media point out this simple fact? It is not hard to see how the epidemic could have been missed altogether for fifteen years. It is the same reason that the epidemic of deaths of despair is not a national crisis for a Harris-Biden administration.

Some lives just matter more than others, you see? The roughly one thousand victims of police shooting fatalities (1k) every year apparently count more than the hundred and fifty thousand (150k) deaths of despair; orders of magnitude be damned. More precisely, in the professional class understanding, the roughly two hundred black men (0.2k) who are shot and killed by the police every year exposes the white supremacism of American police forces and the blue collar officers who man them; while the hundred and fifty thousand deaths of despair merely attest to the self-destruction of the poorly-educated.

COVID-19, the condition caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus that originated in Wuhan, China, is only fatal for the old and those with preexisting heath conditions. It is a health emergency; not the end of the world. As I mentioned, even with all the comorbidities, it is not clear whether more Americans will die of COVID-19 than deaths of despair this year. Indeed, the more I look into what is going on — the extreme social isolation and widespread depression — the more certain I feel that they won’t. Call it the Policy Tensor’s wager on this God-forsaken year.

Perhaps a quarter-of-million Americans will eventually die of COVID-19. More than half-a-million white working-class Americans have already died due the epidemic of deaths of despair. Yet, we accepted a virtual police state because of the pandemic, while exactly nothing has been done to tackle the epidemic. Why?

For starters, a slowly boiling pot is easier to ignore. Deaths of despair have been rising exponentially since the structural break in 2000. Another reason is that solutions are hard to come by. The etiology of the epidemic is clear: the hourglass economy that followed the Clinton betrayal destroyed the working class family, and it is the destruction of the working class family that has led to an epidemic of despair. No one knows where to intervene or how to temper the despair. (I have shown previously that overdose deaths are the strongest predictor of the Trump swing. So we have the causal diagram ‘Clinton betrayal -> hourglass economy -> destruction of the working class family -> deaths of despair and Trump’.) But whether or not there are discoverable solutions, why did it take 15 years for anyone to simply notice the trends?

Part of the answer is surely that the professional class, which is expected to do all the diagnostics and hogs all the articulation, and the working class, where the epidemic is unfolding, live in separate worlds. A vast microgeographic and social gulf separates the two. It is not so much that the epidemic is not reaching the superzips favored by the professional elites. It is everywhere:

Rather, the effective distance is social. If you know New York, it is the social distance between 116th and Broadway and 116th and Columbus, two blocks and two orders of magnitude in income and education away. Professionals simply don’t know anyone who has lost a close friend or family member to the epidemic. It is not usual for waiters at fancy restaurants to talk about their personal or social lives with the clients.

COVID-19, meanwhile, was a potentially serious threat to American civilization. Put another way, the initial panic was justified; although there were some, like the Swedes, who kept their cool. But the Bayesian update that needed to happen this summer — okay guys, this is not exactly an existential threat —  simply did not obtain. Why not?

We can get closer to answering this question if we refine it: Why did the prestige media continue to fan panic over the pandemic even after it was clear that the actual threat was many orders of magnitude smaller? Part of the answer to this question is surely that the prestige media had found an excellent stick to beat the president with. No one can explain the perplexing upside-down international cross-section of the coronavirus toll. But no matter. If sufficient hysteria could be generated over the pandemic’s toll in America and hung around the president’s neck, then perhaps Biden could bring it home in November.

There might be an element of genuine hysteresis involved. Perhaps due to recognizable rigidities in professional class ideology. But we would be stupid to dismiss the grand-strategic logic at play. In any case, what is clear is that the COVID-19 panic has greater currency in the professional class and among Democrats than the working class and among Republicans because of how ecologies of attention are fragmented along class-partisan lines. Put simply, the more exposed you are to the prestige media — essentially a function of status — the greater the panic.

This brings us to the heart of my argument. I have argued previously that Democrats threw their weight behind BLM because the latter was enjoying unprecedented popularity in June; but that the strategy backfired once American cities descended into violence and it turned out that there was little support for defunding the police. My argument here is homologous. Professional elites, who dominate the Democratic party, from Zuckerberg on down, perpetuated the panic over COVID-19 with an eye on the election. But it is looking increasingly likely that it may cost them the election instead.

The logic is straightforward. Because the panic is more intense among Democrats, they are much more likely to mail their ballots. This is a recipe for catastrophe in November. Mail-in ballots are guaranteed to be counted later, giving Trump the opportunity to declare premature victory in a ‘red mirage’ scenario. They are also less likely to be counted, both because of random errors in authentication, and because Team Red will throw whatever it has to disqualify mail-in ballots in the firm knowledge that they are very likely to be votes for Team Blue. The expected behavior of Democrats, particularly professional class Democrats, is opening up entirely new paths for Trump to get back into the Oval Office. Moreover, the more the prestige media fan the coronapanic, the worse it will be. In the event of a contested election, we cannot rule out unprecedented violence in the streets — with Antifa squaring off against better armed right-wing militias.

I will have much more to say about the present political conjuncture after the debate. But for now let us note that the strange lacuna of Biden’s list of four crises offers us an important clue to the present conjuncture. For the blind-spots of the professional class are a slower-moving but more important factor shaping the present conjuncture than strategic errors. They are, in fact, what makes it possible to lose the election due to a strategic error.

But let’s not make this unnecessary strategic mistake. Democrats need to convince each other to go vote in person — especially in battleground states. Forget about the polls and the projections. There is simply no need to tempt fate with unforced errors.

Now, let’s see if Biden can debate Trump. Don’t forget that there will be two nations watching.

10 thoughts on “The Panic over COVID-19 may cost Democrats the Election

  1. The implied support for the Democratic party at the end seems somewhat insincere after you virtually accuse the party of genocidal tendencies. It is difficult to detach from one’s immediate milieu; and you are in the liberal heart of darkness.

    Where did the virus come from? Was it produced as part of the gain-in-function research Dr. Fauci sponsored essentially illegally offshore in Wuhan? Was its release into the atmosphere accidental? Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier has opined that it is lab-made, as have others.

    PT, you are striving to remain socially acceptable among the liberal elites to no avail, IMHO, as you have already broken rank and condemned yourself, in their beady eyes. As you point out, the Democratic platform ignores the gaping chasm in American society. Widen the focus to the attempt at socialistic geopolitical domination by the globalist elite which seems so very evident in the divergent way this pandemic has been handled relative to earlier ones (lockdowns were not advised previously), and fire away. Conspiracies do happen, as do genocides, and most people tend to look away. How is today different from 1917 in Russia?

    1. What is attractive about working class Republicanism, even one lead by Trump, the folk-devil-in-chief in the professional class imaginary, is that it has the working class in the coalition. But like the Valley and the Street are behind Harris-Biden, Oil is behind Trump. That’s not a master I can support in light of the planetary impasse. See my https://policytensor.com/2019/05/23/fear-and-loathing-on-the-hockey-stick-of-doom/. Biden’s at least a start. The larger problem is how to contain Oil/fossil capitalism. But force must be opposed by counterforce. My solution is the Harris-Biden coalition of the Valley and the Street: https://policytensor.com/2019/06/02/discourse-reality-and-strategy-in-the-planetary-impasse/. That is who you need on your team to contain Oil. Republicans are supposed to freak out about Biden working with the radical wing (AOC) on the climate plan. I think that’s an excellent idea. What I do know is that it cannot be sustained for long without a progressive-working class alliance. I may be a class traitor in my thoughts, but I remain a Democrat by conviction. I just think Democrats needs to get their heads out of their asses.

      1. PT – I am a “classical liberal,” former Democrat (never R), Indie for a very long time. The Democrats have demonstrated that the Bill of Rights and Constitution mean little to them. I see a Bolshevik takeover as a pretty sure thing if Dem’s win. I find, as you do, that they are willing to do any amount of destruction to our cities and our economy, assuming childishly, that it will stick to Trump. I cannot support such evil and demented actors. The Democratic Party is self-destructing; we need to let it go. Time for a realignment.

        1. I don’t know about Bolshevism in the party, but I do worry about the woke taking over. Even if you’re worried about free speech, however, it is not clear that Dems in charge of the presidency and the Senate would change anything. The woke counterrevolution goes deep into civil society. It’s epicenter is the prestige schools that are the principal sites of class reproduction for the professional class. That’s not going to go away no matter what happens to the Democratic Party. We’re going to have to contain the woke counterrevolution even, and perhaps especially if, Donald Trump wins again.

          I find political independence a bit of a cop out. Sure you are free to opt out of the political struggle altogether and hope that the party system is transformed. But all that does it remove you from the equation. What I prefer to see instead is a takeover of the major parties by progressive and working class forces; something that happened to the Republican Party in 2015-2016, and came very close indeed for the Democratic party. The question of how and why Bernie was outmaneuvered is an important one: https://policytensor.com/2020/08/13/the-elegy-of-the-new-american-left/. We won’t know the contours of the new party system that is emerging. What is certain is that there is no going back to 1999.

          1. Peace, brother. Structurally, we need to tear down Citizens United, restore Glass Steagall, end the Fed, restore free speech to social media (which the administration is working on with the 320 issue), etc. Yes, the progressives (mostly Independent) need a party, or least representatives to get elected who will do the necessary work, no matter what party they come from. Right now, the bankers win. They control the Democrats and are ready for more BAU. Cheers. Interesting times.

            1. You seriously think the Democratic Party is even mildly social democratic, much less a communist ideology like Bolshevism? If so you have shockingly poor understanding both of the present and of history.

              Speaking as someone on the left, and not a liberal, the Democrats have essentially been telling me to go pound sand for decades. They are opposed to even the most lukewarm of reforms, and still expect me to vote for them (I refuse).

  2. I think there is some issues with exponential growth of virus, if there was no lockdown which would endanger everyone. Showing the death rate under-lock down when virus was incredibly prevalent in senior centers ignores what the actual risk was if there wasn’t a lock down. You can use your chart Has there been a good example of a country dealing with virus risk appropriately? It seems the us post lock down should have initiated a testing isolating program but with no public health infrastructure we were stuck in perpetual lockdown. Also this ignores the long term side effects of the virus I have friends with no preexisting conditions who are still suffering from it and personally even though Im 32 and with no health conditions would very much not want the virus. While, voting in person seems a good point. In terms of lock down and the class interest of democrats as a PMC if I had to go back to work in office I would quite my job! and have enough savings from lack of spending in lockdown to be ok with that.

  3. Since we’re talking about political outcomes rather than just public health, I think looking at it thru the likely-voter-demographic lens might be a way to see the opposite conclusion. As you know, US voters are older and less likely to be of the bottom income levels. (imagine explaining your analysis to a 70-year-old middle-income relative, for example).

    Anyway it’s an interesting take. While ‘culturally red-team’ voters may well be extra annoyed by the additional preaching they have to endure, and maybe extra motivated, my feeling is that the disastrous federal response to Covid is actually the most effective actual issue Democrats have going on in this election. (It didn’t have to be that way, but the party had to pick Biden…).

    There is a lot of other stuff here, mail-in ballots, Harris vs Biden power dynamic, BLM getting predictably hijacked and eventually backfiring. If you’re watching the debate, I suggest putting it on mute and closed captioning it. Seriously, I’ve done this, much more humane experience. (Or better yet, MST3K if you can get a crew, but that’s probably not an option these days).

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