America has largely failed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in a unified, comprehensive way. At this point, nearly 219,000 Americans have died from the virus, which is more than any other country in the world. Things are getting worse, not better; infections are increasing at an alarming rate in over half the states.
What has made America so incapable of responding to these unique circumstances existed before the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, the country was struggling with fundamental changes to conventions and norms. Ipsos dubbed this era of American life the Age of Uncertainty, notable for its declining trust in institutions, rising tribalism and intense political polarization.
Throughout the pandemic, instead of trusting facts, experts and institutions, Americans are taking cues on what to do from their political figureheads. Things like wearing a mask fall along partisan lines, as the pandemic has become just another outward display of what party people support. For instance, only half of Republicans used a mask at least some of time in the middle of April, Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index tracking finds. Fast forward to the end of June, when Republican leaders, including the President, began vocally encouraging people to wear a mask. Following this shift, regular or semi-regular mask use among Republicans began to climb hitting a decisive majority. Though, the number of Republican mask wearers continues to lag behind the number of Democrats, whose party leaders emphasized mask use during the early parts of spring.
How Americans receive, interpret and ultimately trust new information from institutions is also tied to increased tribalism. The most recent Axios/Ipsos survey found that over half of Republicans (57%) have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the federal government, which is run by their party now. Just 30% of Democrats say the same.
This determines the national conversation around how to move forward. Right now, there is little agreement on how to do so. Ipsos’ Consumer Confidence Index finds 48% of Americans want to reopen the economy even if the virus is not fully contained. Half don’t agree with that tactic.
There are many ways this pandemic could play out for the United States. The presidential election in November is the single biggest factor affecting what the future holds for the country. Yet it will take much more than a single election to change course around the factors creating our Age of Uncertainty.