Date April 2, 2020
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Conversations on COVID: The future of American politics

Professor and Chair of Political Science Wendy Schiller weighed in on how COVID-19 is changing the Democratic primaries — and how the fallout could change people’s minds in November’s presidential election.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The spread of COVID-19 and the efforts to contain it have upended every aspect of American society, including the political landscape.

Before the global health crisis, the Democratic presidential primary dominated news feeds in the United States, Democrats seemed deeply divided over whether to elect Joe Biden, generally considered a moderate, or Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist. Now, primary election news has taken a distant backseat to COVID-19 coverage, and Biden’s delegate lead has convinced most pundits that he is very likely to win the nomination, barring unforeseen circumstances.

But how has the spread of coronavirus reshaped the narrative of the election, and how might the crisis influence President Donald Trump’s re-election chances in November? Elections aside, how have American politics shaped the ways in which citizens are affected by the pandemic?

Wendy Schiller, chair of the Department of Political Science at Brown University, answered these questions and more on a recent episode of Trending Globally, a podcast hosted by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown. The conversation, hosted by Trending Globally producer Dan Richards, was recorded on Wednesday, March 18. Lightly adapted excerpts from the conversation are included below, along with audio of the full podcast episode.


Q: On March 17, Democratic primaries were held in Illinois, Florida and Arizona. They were postponed in Louisiana, Georgia, Ohio and Kentucky. What happened in the primaries that were not postponed?

Joe Biden had significant victories over Bernie Sanders in Illinois, Florida and Arizona. His margin of victory was especially strong in Illinois and Florida, and the turnout in Florida was much higher than people had expected given the coronavirus crisis. What that tells you is that there’s still this fairly strong enthusiasm among Democrats across different categories for solidifying Joe Biden’s lead and making him the nominee of the Democratic primary in 2020.

Q: Sanders’ campaign manager said that they were going to “assess their options” in the coming weeks. It is possible that this primary could be over sooner than any of us thought a few months ago.

I think there are some pretty significant implications for democracy, for voting, for presidential elections in short-circuiting this process. When people vote in a primary, they’re significantly more likely to vote in the general election — they’re registered already, and they already know where their polling place is. So the Democrats could really be hurting themselves in this rush to cancel everything and unify, because they won’t have primaries as a mobilization tool for their base, and that could come back to haunt them in November.

We saw very high turnout in 2008. A very highly contested primary, when the loser backs the winner, yields good things for the party. In 2016, the problem with the Bernie Sanders contingent was that Bernie didn’t really support Hillary — actively, anyway. And many of his supporters said that they would stay home. To me, it’s not how long this primary goes, it’s really what Bernie Sanders’ reaction is once he decides, “I can’t win this thing, do I get behind Joe Biden?” He said in Sunday’s debate, “I will get behind you, Joe, if you’re the nominee.” That’s something he didn’t say to Hillary Clinton early in the process.

I think the strategic balancing act for the Democrats, which is not an easy thing, is that Bernie pushed Joe Biden successfully… to accept some of the provisions of the progressive wing of the party. Things that had been sponsored by Elizabeth Warren — bankruptcy protection, for example.

And on health care, I don’t think it’s going to be a very tough sell to the American people that we need a better health care system after this crisis has abated. Whether it’s Medicare for All or something else, it’s pushing Joe Biden to commit to revamping and reforming the health care system. Bernie can go back to his supporters and say, “See? I got him to do this. We’re going to move forward. We just have to defeat Donald Trump.”

Q: How do you think this crisis might affect the types of debates and issues and concerns that are going to take center stage, whether in a continued primary or in the general election?

We’ve come to believe that polarization and partisanship rules the day and that campaigns don’t matter as much as they used to. I think that’s not going to hold for 2020.

I think that Trump has a base that is very solid. Thirty-eight percent of the country loves him; they don’t care what he does, they will vote for him. It’s not his policies, it’s him. What the Democrats have to do is turn that on its head by saying: “This guy did not lead us properly or competently when we had such an enormous crisis. You can’t have somebody who doesn’t tell you the truth…”

That’s the crux of it: Do you want this guy to be leading the country in a time of crisis? It was one thing when the economy was good and everything was calm, but now we really have as big a crisis as we’ve faced in the 21st century, if not the second half of the 20th century. That’s why Joe Biden seems to be such an appealing candidate for the Democrats. People like Joe Biden. They think he can run the country.

Q: In some ways, maybe it’s more about leadership at this moment than about the particular policies.

I think it’s both. It’s about leadership and being willing to be flexible and compromise and help people. The people who love Trump, they’re not going to go away from Trump. But they’re expecting him to help them in this crisis, and if he doesn’t come through, they probably won’t vote — it’s not that they’ll vote for Joe Biden, per se.

Six months from now, if things are calmer, you could argue Trump could survive it. The question is, what’s the impact in those six months? How badly are people hurt?

“ There are all sorts of ways in which the country adapts. We’ve gone through massive crises before, and we’ll get through this one. ”

Wendy Schiller Chair of Political Science

Q: The level of uncertainty is just unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine what the general election might look like, physically.

Whatever the loss of life and the loss of economic health we endure, we will come out of it at some point. And I think it will change people’s minds. We are in 2020. We are well into the 21st century. Why are we still using procedures and techniques from 50 years ago in how we vote? It just doesn’t make any sense.

I filled out my census form yesterday online. It didn’t take me long; it was quite easy to access; it was quite easy to do. If you’re doing the census online, it’ll make you think, “Wait a minute, if I’m doing the census online, why can’t I vote online?”

I think this is exactly how things will change in America. People will say: “If you’re asking us to live in our house and not go anywhere for weeks at a time, and we can actually survive mostly online, why wouldn’t we now change these institutions? Why not change them so we can actually do this online?” I just think there will be a lot of pressure to do that across states.

Q: It was just in December that Donald Trump was impeached. It feels like that was years ago. It made me realize how much everything has changed so quickly in regards to our politics. As someone who follows this world so closely and so deeply, how are you thinking about politics right now, and how do you recommend people think about this moment?

In trying to grapple with it, it’s so fast. Sept. 11 was a tremendous shock, and the country changed so much, let’s not forget. There are all sorts of ways in which the country adapts. We’ve gone through massive crises before, and we’ll get through this one.

I think the political fallout will be, what kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want to make sure that people are taken care of when there’s an emergency? Do we want a better public health system, better investment? That will in turn affect our politics. It’s not going to be that politics changes people’s minds about these things, it’s about people’s lived experiences over the next couple of months and whether that changes what they expect from government and what they’re willing to pay for or give up to get that from government. How uniformly that changes across the country, and how quickly that changes across the country, is something we’re just going to have to keep watching for.