In February 2016 Peggy Noonan wrote a prescient column in The Wall Street Journal, in which she made the distinction between two classes of people: The “protected” — that is, the well-off, the connected, the comfortably insulated — and the “unprotected” — everyone else.
“The protected make public policy,” she wrote. “The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.” Her larger point, unfathomable to so many people at the time (including me), was that Donald Trump was going to win.
Updated for the pandemic, another word for protected might be “Remote.” A recent study by Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago found that 37% of jobs in the U.S. can be performed from home. The Remote are, disproportionately, knowledge workers, mostly well-educated, generally well-paid. Their professional networks, and many of their personal ones, too, are with people who also work remotely.
That leaves the other roughly two-thirds. Call them “Exposed.” They include everyone — shop owner, waiter, cabdriver, sales associate, factory worker, nanny, flight attendant, and so on — for whom physical presence is a job requirement. They are, typically, less well-educated, less well-paid.
For the Remote, the lockdowns of the past two months have been stressful. For the Exposed, they have been catastrophic. For the Remote, another few weeks of lockdown is an irritant. For the Exposed, whose jobs are disappearing by the millions every week, it is a terror. For the Remote, COVID-19 is the grave new risk. For the Exposed, it’s one of several. For the Remote, an image on the news of cars forming long lines at food banks is disconcerting. For the Exposed, that image is — or may very soon be — the rear bumper in front of you.
The 2020 election will hinge on who decisively wins the vote of the Exposed.
The Democratic case is that nothing matters more right now than saving the public from COVID-19. Hence the preference for prolonging the lockdowns until the virus is somehow contained. The Republican case is that nothing matters more than saving the public from the effects of the response to COVID-19. Hence the preference for lifting the lockdowns sooner than may be medically advisable.
For now, Democrats seem to have gotten the better of the argument. Essential medical workers aside, nobody in the workforce is more exposed to COVID-19 than the Exposed themselves — the people whose livelihoods depend on constant personal interactions that place them at continual risk. So it stands to reason that lockdowns, cushioned by effective financial help and the hope that things will soon return to normal (or semi-normal), should enjoy their support.
Politically speaking, that case seems to be working. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that Democratic governors associated with some of the tougher lockdown measures — Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania; Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan — have approval ratings north of 70%. By contrast, Republican Brian Kemp, the Georgia governor prominently associated with lifting the lockdown, is at 39%.
But the Democratic case rests on some large assumptions.
One assumption is that COVID-19 is containable and will eventually be curable. If it isn’t, what are the lockdowns really achieving, other than delaying the march toward herd immunity while imposing ruinous costs on those least able to afford them?
Another is that the lockdowns are the economic equivalent of a medically induced coma. But what if they’re really a form of politically induced necrosis, killing jobs and businesses that will never come back?
A third is that the balance of public sympathy will rest with the comparatively small numbers of acute COVID-19 sufferers. But what happens when their numbers are dwarfed by those suffering from awful personal hardship?
One additional factor: The people making so many of the key decisions on how and when the lockdowns end (or may be resumed) are not themselves members of the Exposed class. When Whitmer joined ABC’s “The View” from what looked like a comfortable home to describe some anti-lockdown demonstrators as “racist and misogynistic,” she reminded voters of the yawning gulf between the Remote and the Exposed — or, as Noonan put it, between those who get to make policy and those who have to live in it.
Even now, many Democrats think (and I’m sometimes inclined to agree) that they will be able to win this fall on the strength of Trump’s catastrophic failures in managing the crisis. But Trump’s political stock-in-trade is resentment, above all toward those who mistake their good luck for superior merit, or confuse virtue signaling with wise policy, or who impose policies on others without fully feeling the effects themselves.
After the 2016 election, there was a flurry of liberal interest in trying to understand those voters who gave the presidency to Trump. Here’s the short answer: People don’t take kindly to being scolded by those they blame for messing up their lives in the name of some greater good. Those who think the world can be run by remote control will have their folly exposed to failure by those who know it can’t.
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.