IGS Resident Scholar Thomas E. Mann weighs in on the pandemic’s impact on American politics

April 6, 2020

IGS Resident Scholar Thomas E. Mann weighs in on the pandemic’s impact on the way Congress does business, the 2020 presidential election, and the future of American democracy, with Kelly Jones for the Institute of Governmental Studies. 

IGS: What are the likely impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for the 2020 presidential election? Is the pandemic—and the Trump Administration’s handling of it—likely to hurt or help President Trump’s chances to win in November? 

Thomas Mann (TM): I preface my response with a well-deserved note of humility. We in the United States are living in mostly uncharted territory – a global pandemic (with the greatest incidence of confirmed cases now in our own country) of a highly contagious, new coronavirus-based respiratory disease spread person-to-person that causes mild to severe illness, including death among older adults and/or those with compromised immune systems; many months away from any proven drug treatment or vaccine; a pattern of contagion with a surge of infections that puts an extraordinary strain on hospitals with insufficient beds, equipment, staff, and supplies to meet the demand for emergency health care;  social distancing as the only remedy presently available to contain the spread of Covid-19 (and flatten the curve of infection, hospitalization, and death) but at the cost of shutting down much of the economy; all with a federalized political system riven by polarization, hyperpartisanship, and intense competition for electoral control of the White House, Congress, and state governments and led by a President who is arguably the most ill-suited, by experience, knowledge of government, temperament, and republican virtue, occupant of the White House in the nation’s history.  Under these extraordinary circumstances, all we can do is make educated guesses about what might lie ahead.

President Trump has not handled the pandemic well. He lacks trust in federal employees who do not pay homage and demonstrate loyalty to him. He was slow to take the pandemic seriously, did little to marshall the public health resources of the federal government to get a head start on reliable testing, the identification, production, and distribution of essential equipment and supplies, and failed to mobilize the country to meet the virus head on. In his words, the federal government “is the backup” to states and localities. Not the words of a war president.

IGS: Do you think President Trump’s base will hold onto his counter-narrative, which is that his administration has handled the pandemic perfectly, or is he at risk of losing some of his supporters who will be impacted by the crisis (e.g., health, financial/economic)?

TM: Most of his base will likely stick with him but that would leave him short of victory in November. Trump’s base is hard-wired in their social and political identities. But some less enthusiastic Republicans and independents will likely turn against him because of the pandemic’s devastation on his watch to human life and economic fortune, sufficient to diminish his chances of reelection.

IGS: Some experts are predicting another wave of the pandemic will hit in the fall. Is there a chance that the November 3 election will be postponed? What would be required to do so?

TM: Highly unlikely. The date is set in law. House Democrats would never agree to a bill changing that date. Moreover, the Constitution mandates that the new Congress must be sworn in on January 3, and that the new president’s term must begin on January 20. That leaves little wiggle room for postponing the November election but enough to wreak havoc on it. The President and Republican leaders in Congress are openly opposed to funding or facilitating the availability in all states of no excuse absentee mail balloting in the event the pandemic makes in person voting difficult if not impossible. Moreover, they could work with sympathetic state and local election officials to use the public health dangers as an excuse to close polling locations, reduce early voting, and put new restrictions on absentee balloting.

IGS: What lasting impacts might the pandemic have on Congress, both procedurally and substantively? With regard to procedure, for years you have been actively advising Congress to come up with a contingency plan to enable Congress and other branches of government to continue to function in times of crisis. What have been the political and legal obstacles to putting in place such a plan? Do you think that given the seriousness of the current crisis, Congress is likely to act?

TM: At some point Congress will act to enable itself to operate in the absence of a physical quorum in the Capital because of terrorism, public health crisis, or some other legitimate reason. It is foolish not to provide a backup system that allows remote voting when absolutely necessary. The constitutional objections that have been raised are easily answered. Today’s technology makes it relatively easy to set up a secure system that provides that backup. And the rules can be written to make it difficult to routinize remote voting. Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell have dug in their heels in opposition to that or any other continuity plans for the three branches of government and show no signs of relenting. They’ll have to be forced into doing it by their members or the public.

IGS: Will the need for Congress to respond to the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis result in sustained bipartisan cooperation? Will it have any lasting effect on the trend toward hyperpartisanship in Congress and the electorate?

TM: Crises of this magnitude create forced marriages that are often short-lived. There is ample evidence already that the pandemic has heightened the partisan stakes in the November election. I think only changes in the dominant ideologies and coalitional bases of the two parties that provide some cross-cutting cleavages, the demise of the current Republican Party and its replacement by a new party, or electoral system reform (such as multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting) that makes possible third parties will weaken the hyperpolarization.  None of these are presently in sight.

IGS: Finally, are there any other consequences (or benefits) you anticipate for American politics and institutions as a result of this crisis? 

TM: The most worrisome potential consequence is the weakening of American democracy. I worry about a crisis of legitimacy if Trump loses the November election but, with the support of his party, challenges the results and refuses to leave office. Richard Hasen has even raised the heretofore unimaginable possibility that Trump would try to get a few Republican state legislatures to ignore the popular vote in their states and appoint electors who support Trump. (Bush v. Gore raises its ugly head.) I also worry that the economic and social disruptions of this pandemic could reinforce ethno-nationalist populism and lead even more Americans to get drawn toward authoritarian leaders and systems. There is some suggestive evidence that the 1918 influenza pandemic (the “Spanish flu) reduced social trust among citizens and helped set the stage for the rise of fascism in early 20th century Europe.   

On the benefit side, I can also imagine this pandemic serving as a costly civics lesson in the damage done by the demonization of government that has been a hallmark of one of our two major parties in recent decades. I even fantasize about The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis becoming required reading in high school civics courses and the revival of a strong and effective public service.