The coronavirus lockdowns are arguably the most regressive domestic policy in modern American history. They are also highly correlated with the ideological spectrum: the more left, the more lockdowns.
As lockdowns approach their one year anniversary, Americans’ frustration with them offers conservatives their greatest political opportunity in half a century.
As coronavirus took hold in the spring of 2020, states began locking down their populations. On March 19, California went into lockdown; on March 21, New York followed suit. Residents were told to stay home and all businesses deemed non-essential were closed.
The initial responses in California and New York presaged an ideological trend that has persisted: Blue states have embraced lockdowns earlier, longer and with more severity than red states. While readily self-evident, the pattern’s extent is dramatic.
A University of Southern California (USC) study modeling coronavirus’s impact on the U.S. economy tabulated the days states had imposed stay-at-home orders and mandatory closures from March to June 2020. Ranging from zero to 76 days, 28 states were above the 38-day midpoint; 22 voted for then-candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenMcAuliffe holds slim lead over Youngkin in Fox News poll Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE in November, while only six voted for President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Bennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump MORE. Similarly, an Oxford University paper on states’ coronavirus responses from July to December found: Of the 10 states with the most stringent responses, nine voted for Biden last November, while of the 10 states with the least stringent responses all voted for Trump.
The obvious irony in this pro-left bias is lockdowns’ hugely regressive nature and its complete break with the left’s long-standing pro-“little guy” rhetoric as the party of the working man. Lockdowns’ regressive aspect is unsurprising. The “little guys,” due to their lack of resources to supplement or replace government resources, are therefore the most dependent on government services.
Lacking resources to circumvent the government when the government turns on them, the little guys have little recourse. In this case, when the government has turned off — from non-essential services to very essential public schools — and they have no recourse at all.
Equally unsurprising is that those with the least resources have been hardest hit. The latest jobs report shows overall U.S. unemployment was 6.3 percent (versus 3.5 percent last January, even as the labor participation rate fell from 63.4 to 61.4 percent). Unemployment is strongly tied to education levels: Those without high school degrees had a 9.1 percent rate; with high school degrees, 7.1 percent; with some college, 6.2 percent; and with college degrees, 4 percent.
As high as these figures are, they undercount unemployment’s true impact. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) most comprehensive unemployment measure, January’s rate was 11.1 percent. A similarly dismal dispersion — if not worse — by education undoubtedly exists here too. A September 2020 Pew Research Center report’s polling data also found adverse economic impact disproportionately skewed to the lower income group. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 46 percent of lower-income adults face hardships paying their bills and nearly 32 percent have trouble paying their rent or mortgage.
The impact has been just as severe on small businesses. According to a recent Federal Reserve report, 90 percent of small businesses had not returned to their pre-crisis levels. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that the small business recovery has flattened. Earlier this year, a Yelp report found that almost 164,000 small businesses had closed by the end of August and that roughly 60 percent will not reopen. Yelp also noted the same ideology disparity with its five hardest hit states being blue ones: Hawaii, California, Nevada, Arizona and Washington.
The major reason for these impacts is the lockdowns. The USC study modeled three scenarios’ impact on the economy as a result of coronavirus: “The major factor affecting the results in all three scenarios is the combination of Mandatory Closures and Partial Reopenings of businesses. These alone could have resulted in a 22.3 percent to 60.6 percent decrease in U.S. GDP across the scenarios.”
Questions about the lockdowns’ efficacy (that heightened incidences are also occurring where lockdowns are the most stringent) and economy (the federal government has already put $3.9 trillion into relief measures in 2020 and is debating another $1.9 trillion now — all largely just offsetting lockdowns’ effects) only add to the public’s growing frustration.
Still, the lockdowns stubbornly persist even as the public increasingly resists them. In California, where this began almost a year ago, Democratic Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space Top Latino group endorses Padilla for full Senate term Vaccine mandates in California's two largest school systems challenged MORE faces a mounting recall effort. Although his administration tries to discredit the recall effort’s motives, the electorate’s lockdown frustration is clear. And California could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Were any other government program so regressive, the left likely would be outraged. If a tax policy’s effects so disadvantaged lower- and middle-income groups, or spending cuts so targeted them, the left and the media would never allow it. Instead, this one promulgated by the left proceeds without their comment. Yet it does not go by with little notice of the lockdowns’ lower- and middle-class victims.
As such, lockdowns are the greatest political opportunity conservatives have encountered since the 1970s’ stagflation brought forth the Reagan Revolution. Not since has the danger of uncontrolled government been so evident or so resented — especially by the left’s self-proclaimed constituency. The gulf between the left’s rhetoric and its reality has not been clearer in two generations. Nor has the gulf between the left and the little guy been wider and growing so rapidly.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.