Jack Goldstone is an expert in revolutions, comparative politics, and political demography. In May, he was recognized as one of 27 recipients of the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program. Goldstone is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr. Chair Professor of Public Policy in the Schar School of Policy and Government.
Who is responsible for America's COVID-19 death toll? China, Italy, the governor of New York, President Trump?
Jack Goldstone: There is plenty of blame to go around—there is not a single government leader, national or local, in China, Europe, or America, who acted perfectly. That should not surprise us; this was a “sneak attack.” Unlike Ebola, MERS, or SARS, the SARS-2 virus was capable of spreading silently for weeks, and only then bursting forth with an explosion of cases then deaths. What matters is who learned from their initial mistakes, and how quickly they moved to counter them.
Here is what China did well: Though they lied at first—to their own people, to the WHO, to us—once they realized they had a dangerous virus loose, they shared the genetic sequence and began to lock down their country. Other nearby countries immediately recognized what that meant and ramped up their capacity for testing and isolation—they were spared major epidemics.
It was countries that thought "poor China, but that won't happen here," first in Europe, then in the U.S., who failed to act for weeks afterward who really loosened the virus on the world. The U.S. has not been the worst; arguably Russia and Brazil acted with even greater delay and denial. But among developed nations, the U.S. stands out for the federal government's failure to procure necessary medical supplies; for its unprecedented failure to develop a testing capacity to track the disease; and for the president's many, many missteps. Those include credulously believing China, to downplaying the risk to the U.S., to failing to have the federal government act in tandem with state governments, to promoting untested and unsound remedies, to setting aside scientific advice on masking, and pushing states to reopen. It is no accident that the U.S. at present leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths. By not locking down until late March, two months after China acted, the U.S. invited a tenfold increase in deaths that could have been avoided.
What will the economic consequences be?
Jack Goldstone: I would like to be an optimist. Maybe everyone will wear masks, the infection rate will drop to very low levels, and things will go back to normal. But with 20,000 new cases per day, over 1,000 deaths per day—numbers that were literally unimaginable two months ago, how can we go back to normal? Two months ago, 1,000 deaths per day would have been a catastrophe; today we are being told that even with those numbers we can sound the "safe to go out" whistle. Perhaps three to five percent of the U.S. population has been infected; that leaves over 95 percent still vulnerable to infection.
Restaurant owners, local governments, schools, and businesses are promising to do all they can to make things safe, but it's the customers that matter. Where I live in Washington, D.C., I see dozens of people every day walking outdoors without masks; in other areas people protest that wearing masks is giving in to tyranny. And we all see pictures of people mixing it up in churches, beaches, nail salons, and elsewhere without masks. This is a very contagious virus. Half the U.S. population will probably be careless enough to spread it, causing a new round of outbreaks [in June]; the other half will probably be careful and shelter, avoiding plane travel, restaurants, retail shopping. The latter half will slow any recovery; that first half, if they cause new outbreaks that lead to further fear and lockdowns, will tank it.
I think we have not yet seen anywhere near how bad things will get when unemployment benefits run out, and people start defaulting on their mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, businesses stop paying rents, commercial real estate craters, and who knows what else.
And what will the political impact of COVID-19 be?
Jack Goldstone: I think we will see a major political shift. If the economy is still poor in late summer, Trump will lose, but the Democrats will inherit an unholy mess. I envision this being similar to when Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt came to power determined to do something to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression. He succeeded to a degree. Unemployment was 25 percent when he took office in 1933 and had fallen to 14 percent by 1937. FDR came up with lots and lots of novel ideas that helped workers and reduced unemployment. But then recovery stalled, and unemployment remained above 15 percent to 1941.
I expect the Democrats to unleash a host of new ideas, from some sort of universal health care to new infrastructure and green energy programs to higher taxes on capital gains and high incomes, to more liberal immigration laws, along with pro-labor and education measures. Those will help, but even if a vaccine becomes widely available next year, people will take 3 to 4 years to get over the losses and business closures that will mark 2020. Dealing with an aging population, the shift from a bricks and mortar to a digital world for retail, education, and entertainment, and the immense debt load from this crisis will likely keep the economy at slow growth for 5 to 7 years.
Still, it seems likely that the stench of this year's pandemic deaths and massive job losses will cling to Republicans for many years, just as they did after Herbert Hoover. President Biden will likely only serve one term, but I expect he will be succeeded by eight to twelve years of Democratic successors.
You are an expert on revolutions. Will COVID-19 cause a wave of revolutions around the world?
Jack Goldstone: Not right away. Major pandemics and depressions do not cause revolutions immediately, because people are too busy reacting to the initial shock and trying to figure out how to survive. It is only a few years later, when things stabilize and people take stock, that they look around and decide who to blame. If they blame the government for making their situation worse, then you are likely to see uprisings.
In the 1840s in Europe, the potato blight caused widespread famines in 1845-46; but it wasn't until 1848 that we saw a wave of revolutions. You need three things for a revolution to occur: The government must be financially weakened—and we will see many governments financially hurt by the global depression brought by this pandemic.
Second, major leaders from the elite [class] must abandon the government and be willing to lead people in revolt—this only happens if the governments have been so incompetent that even elite wealth and positions are threatened. This looks to be the case so far only in the U.S., Russia, and Brazil. In most other countries (including China), the government acted strongly enough to avoid the worst outcomes of the epidemic.
Third, people must blame the government and believe that they can make a better future for themselves by changing it. That is likely in the U.S., in Russia, and may perhaps also be the case in Brazil and a few other developing countries.
In democracies, however, we don't usually see revolutions play out as the overthrow of the government. Instead we see a major electoral realignment as people use their vote to throw the rascals out and remake their government. In semi-authoritarian regimes, we are more likely to see massive marches and street demonstrations leading to regime change, and that is most likely in Russia and Brazil—although Brazil could also change by election if people have faith in the ballot; that is not yet clear given that Jair Bolsonaro's supporters have hinted they would support a military coup. If the epidemic blasts out of control in places like Egypt, Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia, we could see uprisings and even revolutions there, along with places like Bangladesh or several states in sub-Saharan Africa.
So yes, I do expect a wave of uprisings and revolutions and major electoral realignments around the world starting in 2021-2022. They will occur where governments have fallen into severe debts, elites have lost faith in the regime, and people are angry and blame their leaders for unnecessary suffering. Many countries around the world, including the U.S., will likely fit that profile very soon.