Americans are not OK. They are telling us in every poll that they are struggling economically, prices are too high, balancing work and family life is difficult, and they just don’t like how things are going right now. President Biden is unpopular, and most people don’t think they are better off than they were four years ago.
This set of attitudes has historically been associated with two things: deteriorating macroeconomic indicators and the president’s party losing elections. Yet neither is happening: Economic data shows strong GDP growth, low unemployment, and slowing inflation, while Democrats keep winning key downballot elections.
There’s a big reason that the relationships between Americans’ economic attitudes, macroeconomic conditions, and political outcomes don’t look like they used to: It’s the pandemic, stupid. If you stop quoting statistics at people who say they are hurting economically and get past the horse-race data, you’ll see we’re acting like a society traumatized by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yes, some of the electoral success for Democrats also comes from mobilization in response to the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But that’s not the full answer, and it doesn’t explain why economic factors in the polls matter differently in elections than they used to.
What does explain it is that three-and-a-half years ago the world turned upside down. Even in areas that didn’t have extended lockdowns, the pandemic upended lives for a long time—sudden mass unemployment and income loss, closed schools and businesses, fear that there was no clear answer or endpoint—to say nothing of the emotional toll of lost loved ones. By the end of 2020, more than half of Americans knew someone who had been hospitalized or died from COVID—and that was still early in the pandemic.
The pandemic’s conditions highlighted the many ways people struggle to care for their families, to stay healthy, to maintain steady work. It demonstrated how precarious our lives and situations are, even for people who thought they had stable work, stable family lives, and stable schooling for their children.
Those conditions also demonstrated that the U.S. government was completely incapable of averting the economic and public health disaster. The government could step in and help people, as proven by the many pandemic-era aid programs—but for large numbers of voters, the end of these programs only demonstrated the government’s lack of interest in continuing to help. Trust in institutions was already declining, but the pandemic era pushed it to all-time lows.
Data from the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Stress in America survey, conducted in August, highlights the pattern: Americans report substantially higher stress rates than they did in 2019. Economic stress has increased compared to the pre-pandemic days, as has stress related to personal safety and family responsibilities, with parents of children under 18 showing higher stress levels than nonparents. All of these increased stressors are consistent with what happened during the worst of the pandemic.
But why is this still shaping people’s views on the economy if we’ve generally recovered? Because trauma stays with us, and the pandemic trauma was both societal and personal for a large part of the U.S. population in a way that we haven’t seen in the modern public opinion era. This microscopic threat spread uncontrollably, at its peak killing more Americans per day than died on 9/11. The enemy was a virus that couldn’t be contained or stopped, mutating as quickly as we could learn how to fight it.
And there has been no clear end to it—no closure, no strike back against an enemy. People are still getting sick and dying from COVID, and many people get COVID and flu vaccines at the same time now. We have no guarantees that this type of large-scale disaster won’t or can’t happen again. In fact, it’s likely to happen again.
Trauma doesn’t just go away in individuals or societies. It changes the people and societies that have experienced it. A logical hypothesis is that the deep-seated anxieties we see in polling data are not related to the person—or party—in power the same way that they used to be.
Some patterns are still there: Republicans remain more likely to blame Biden because of partisanship, for example. But the overarching negativity and distrust of anyone in government is at least in part related to having the rug pulled out from under us all in early 2020 without really ever getting answers to why, how, or what could keep it from happening again. That’s the kind of thing that fundamentally changes society and politics. We’d see it if we looked beyond the horse race.
Weekly column written by Vice President Natalie Jackson for National Journal.
This column was originally published on November 14, 2023, on nationaljournal.com and is owned by and licensed from National Journal Group LLC.