August 8, 2020

America Is a Coalition of the Worried

It’s August, high summer, and you’re trying to ease in and relax with family, and friends. You’ve imagined it for months. You’re at the beach with pails and shovels and towels and the short chairs, and you’re trying to sit back and do nothing after this unrelenting year of stress and effort and rolling with every punch. That’s something people don’t fully appreciate about themselves, don’t fully credit—that they rolled with every punch this year, even when history wouldn’t stop throwing them.

On the beachYou’re looking at the waves with this fixed and pleasant look on your face because the kids or grandkids are always picking up cues and clues. But really you’ve got this thousand-yard stare, you’re a million miles away, immersed in your concerns, your fears. About everything.

It is the salient fact of the summer of ‘20, that everyone goes so quickly from “Beautiful day” to “How you doing?” to “I’m so worried.”

People who haven’t worried in years are worried, and it’s not about regular things, it’s about big and essential things. It’s a whole other order of anxiety.

That’s all this is about. How anxious everyone is, and how deep down they know they’re going to be anxious for a long time.

We’re in the middle (perhaps—nobody knows) of a world-wide pandemic, a historic occurrence that for everyone alive has been without precedent. We are in the middle (perhaps—nobody knows) of a severe economic contraction that looks likely to produce a long recession. We’ve experienced a national economic shutdown, again without precedent. The virus continues, and everyone fears it will turn worse in the fall when it starts to collide with the flu.

Everyone is worried about the future of the big cities. Crime, protests, the feeling nobody’s in charge. The historic upending of a commuter model that has, in New York at least, reigned for centuries. When you return to the city in the fall, what will you be returning to?

You’re thinking: Do we want to live there, should we live there, should we live someplace else? What you’re really asking is: Will the city hold?

Are we going to have school? How will that work? If we don’t, what will it do to the kids and to parents who have to work? If schools open, what might the kids catch and bring home?

Is my business going to make it? Will it really open up again as an office, a store, a way of working? If it does, will it continue to need me? At the same salary? Real-estate sales outside my city are booming.

The mood: Everyone is trying to think all this through, even though it’s too big to “think through.”

And everyone is afraid of making a mistake.

Everyone wants a feeling of safety. But no one is certain where safety is.

I’m not sure Washington and the national political class see this, but a great question of 2020: What will make us feel safer?

Am I right in what I’m seeing? I ask five disparate friends. In spades, they say.

A nurse in a lake community in New Jersey names her worry: “Evictions and foreclosures.” People are maintaining a surface cool. “Everyone I talk to is getting by day to day but anxious about what the future holds.” “The uncertainty is so much.” People in the medical field tend to feel secure in their jobs, but she isn’t sure the nation’s nurses, in a second wave in the fall, will be willing to go back and work in the same conditions they faced in March and April. “Do we have it in us to do it again?’

A retired political pro in the Midwest: "Most people I interact with put on a good face, but the conversation usually goes to serious concerns"—the economy, jobs, the schools. Some large local employers are laying people off; several local businesses have gone under. "People are very worried about both the short-term impact and longer-term consequences.”

A university administrator in Southern California: “What adds to the weirdness for many in their 40s and 50s in particular is the dissonance between what people are seeing around them every day and what they feel and know is sand shifting under their feet.” People with white-collar jobs are still in their homes and on Zoom. “They see their co-workers every day, virtually, and if there are layoffs these people just—poof!—disappear into another dimension. No goodbyes or farewell happy hour.” If you read the papers you see there’s no run on the banks, and the stock market is booming. “But is it? There are warning signs—unemployment but also all the apparel firms going under, malls empty. Commercial real estate is next.”

A lawyer in Westchester County, N.Y., said weekday evening services at his synagogue are drawing twice as many congregants as in the pre-Covid past. “Folks are frayed, bewildered, they need a time-out from the uncertainty. It’s not that they expect deliverance—the High Holiday liturgy and history are a giant cautionary tale.” “It’s like things around us are broken and we want some certainty. Not the certainty that everything will be all right, but the certainty that ‘this’ is here this moment and will again be here in the morning.”

To a writer and consultant based in Virginia, this historical moment feels charged. “It’s maybe not quite the summer of 1914 or 1939, but there’s a definite sense of worry, of not knowing, and thinking there’s a long road until we’re done with this, if one can even say such a thing, and certainly a long road until the joys of next summer, which seems very distant.”

If you broaden your lens and look toward Washington, what makes you feel better, more secure, inspired? What makes you feel safer, as if there’s a way out or a path through? Anything?

There’s something I’ve been trying to write for a few weeks but can’t get my hands around—but it’s as if there’s no president, it’s an empty White House, nobody’s really there, it’s not an administration but an eccentric event that causes clamor. I’ve never had that feeling before, that a White House is empty and weightless. The media, whose job it is to hold it to account, are distrusted. A Knight Foundation-Gallup survey released this week showed 86% of Americans seeing “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of political bias in news coverage. The Democrats can’t agree on what they’re running on beyond “We’re Not Trump, ” which may or may not be enough, with a presidential candidate age 77 who sometimes seems confused. People can’t even be confident the election will work, that it will be orderly, that the old rough integrity of the system will hold. They know there will likely be no “election night” with states called and a winner declared. But will there be an election week? Month?

When you look toward Washington it’s not solid ground, it’s more shifting sand.

And so the mood this charged summer of ‘20: Everyone’s scared, everyone’s trying to figure out where safety is, everyone’s afraid of making a mistake.

You aren’t alone. The whole vast middle of the country now is a Coalition of the Worried.

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