(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Covid-19 and the Democratic presidential primaries, the two biggest stories of the year so far, reflect a common theme: the death of the progressive left. Looking back, historians may well see late 2019 and very early 2020 as a kind of high-water mark for American progressivism.
It wasn’t so long ago that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were commanding most of the attention in the presidential campaign, especially among intellectuals. Right before Super Tuesday, Sanders was a clear favorite in the prediction markets. Yet the actual voting showed the strength of Joe Biden, a (relative) centrist; Warren attracted very little support, and Sanders failed to reach the same vote totals he achieved four years ago.
And a big comeback for the left four years from now seems unlikely. Democratic Party success is likely to come from other directions. Covid-19 could well be a front-page story for the next year or two, possibly more. Over the span of less than a week, virtually every major institution in American life has been subject to radical changes to their daily operations, and it is not clear when things will return to normal. Covid-19 may well make a bigger impression on the national consciousness than 9/11 or the financial crisis of 2008.
How will Covid-19 reshape public opinion? I am not suggesting that what follows is rational, much less correct, but here are some guesses:
-- The notion of very open international borders will seem strange and indeed intolerable, as most of the world’s wealthy nations have been looking for ways to keep foreigners out. The new restrictions on movement will not be repealed so quickly or so thoroughly, and for a while the U.S. may restrict movement across domestic states and cities. President Donald Trump will appear to have been ahead of his time, and immigration will no longer be a viable mobilizing issue for the left.
-- The egalitarianism of the progressive left also will seem like a faint memory. Elites are most likely to support wealth redistribution when they feel comfortable themselves, and indeed well-off coastal elites in California and the Northeast are a backbone of the progressive movement. But when these people feel threatened in their lives or occupations, or when the futures of their children suddenly seem less secure, redistribution will not be such a compelling ideal.
I am not saying you have to welcome this change, only that it is likely.
-- A massive dose of fiscal policy has been another progressive priority. Now that even Republicans are embracing stimulus, as a political issue it will cease to be effective for the left.
-- The case for mass transit also will seem weaker, because subways and buses will be associated with the fear of Covid-19 transmission. In a similar fashion, the forces of NIMBY will become stronger, relative to those of YIMBY, because people secure in their isolated suburban homes will feel less stressed than those in densely packed urban apartment buildings.
-- There is likely to be much more government intervention in some parts of the health-care sector, but it will focus on scarce hospital beds and ventilators, and enforce nasty triage, rather than being a benevolent move toward universal coverage. If anything, it will drive home the message that supply constraints are binding and America can’t have everything — hardly the traditional progressive message.
-- The climate change movement is likely to be another victim. How much have you heard about Greta Thunberg lately? Concern over the climate will seem like another luxury from safer and more normal times. In addition, the course of anti-Covid-19 efforts may not prove propitious for the climate change movement. If the fight against Covid-19 suddenly improves (perhaps a vaccine working very quickly?), Americans may come to expect the same in the fight against climate change.
Alternatively, if Covid-19 risk persists, it will distract and seem like the bigger problem. And the various national responses to date also do not suggest that international cooperation is going to be very successful on a wide variety of issues, climate change included.
Personally, when I see so many people mixing in large crowds for fun, only a week or two before the Covid-19 disaster is likely to strike and overwhelm hospitals, I despair. Will such people ever take climate change seriously?
Again, this is all conjecture. But as Covid-19 continues to spread, it is likely that the list of things it will change — in politics and the world of ideas, much less daily life — is only going to grow.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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