David Brooks: Ordinary people are leading the leaders

(Mary Altaffer | AP) Medical personnel help residents sign in for a COVID-19 test at the Bethany Baptist Church, Wednesday, May 13, 2020, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. Churches in low income communities across New York are offering COVID-19 testing to residents in conjunction with New York State and Northwell Health.

We have entered the endurance phase of this pandemic. We are slowly mastering this disease, but we have not yet done so. And so we wait — and endure.

Endurance is patience. It is shortening your time horizon so you just have to get through this day. Endurance is living with unpleasantness. In fact, it is finding you can adapt and turn the strangest circumstance into routine.

Endurance is fortifying. It is discovering you can get socked in the nose and take it.

Above all, endurance is living with uncertainty. Sometimes, it’s remaining quiet in the face of uncertainty because no conjecture will really tell you what is coming. Endurance is the knowledge that the only way out is through and whatever must be borne will be borne.

Those of us in my profession are not good at being quiet in the face of uncertainty. It’s sort of a career-ender. So, I’ve noticed a vast chasm open up between the information and opinion I get online and the information and opinion I get from conversations I have with people over the phone or Zoom.

Twitter has never been real life. But now Twitter and a lot of the surrounding commentary are basically the opposite of real life.

In the first place, online life is very political. People see the world through political categories, make points that will affirm their political identities.

On Zoom, most of the conversation is about coping with the current moment. According to Gallup, Americans are experiencing the sharpest drop in perceived well-being on record.

So what you hear about in random conversations is the elementary school principal trying to find an apartment and beds for one of his students. It’s people saying how much more active their churches and synagogues have gotten in maintaining community. It’s people trying to cope with physical anxiety and economic terror by taking a daily walk, noticing the trees, offering one another the kind of psychic care that we used to farm out to professionals. If there was ever an age of self-sufficiency, it’s not now.

Second, online life gives you the impression that America is bitterly divided. We in my profession primarily cover conflict. We all click on items that play to negative emotions, so there’s a powerful negativity bias online. Online is the place where partisans go to be partisan.

But in real life, America is less divided than it was before the pandemic. In a Washington Post/Ipsos survey, only 16% of Americans say their state isn’t opening up fast enough. Three-quarters say we need to keep slowing the disease even if it means keeping businesses closed. The big story now is that regular Republicans are not following the Trumpian Taliban in their shrill cries to reopen everything immediately.

Americans in red and blue states are staying home at nearly exactly the same rates. There is little correlation between whether a state is red or blue and how it is doing in fighting the disease.

Tim Dixon tells me that in his “More in Common” surveys, the share of Americans who feel they live in a divided society has fallen from 87% to 48%. Eighty-two percent now say we have more that unites us than divides us.

Third, people online have very certain and dogmatic opinions about what we should do now. Rush Limbaugh and others on the right think the lockdown is a Democratic plot to get President Donald Trump. When the governors of Georgia and Florida opened up a bit, many commentators on the left treated them as if they were serial killers — as if what they were doing was an obvious atrocity. In truth, the people of Georgia and Florida are not worse off than before, and there’s evidence they’re actually better off, at least so far.

In real life, people are less dogmatic and more uncertain — just trying to feel their way toward a way forward. They’re seeking the right balance between safety and normalcy.

They’re not waiting for politicians to tell them what to do. People locked themselves down before the governors acted and they’re staying home even where governors have opened up. The important decisions are not being made in statehouses. They are being made at the family and community level, as networks of people try to figure out what to do, based on their particular local context.

Online, humility is rare. People trained in the art of rigid ideology aren’t doing well with a disease that is so mysterious and seemingly random. I’m worried that the polarization industry’s false narrative of division and conflict will turn self-fulfilling.

But so far as a country we are hanging in with one another. And we’re in a process of discovery. We’re slowly learning the strange features of this disease, slowly improvising what will be a wide variety of local ways forward. Endurance is not static. It’s slowly learning, slowly adjusting.

The pandemic has revealed the rot in many of our political dogmas and institutions, but also a greater humanity, a deeper compassion in the face of suffering, and a hidden solidarity, which I, at least, did not know was there.

David Brooks

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.