From the Left



If History Is of Any Value: Revisiting March 2020, Part 2

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

While some of the economic and geopolitical predictions of experts surveyed by Politico magazine, Foreign Affairs, Devex and The Guardian in March and April of 2020 materialized (and others did not), forecasts in matters of culture, particularly political culture and social values, were completely off the mark.

Yes, it is easier (albeit still tricky) to forecast economic and political developments than matters of historical and cultural change. That is why economists speak freely about future trends and some political scientists don't think twice about predicting who will win the next election.

Historians, while trigger-shy about the future, are better equipped to anticipate what may be around the corner. This is why: Historians are by training multidisciplinarians; we don't look at historical phenomena in isolation but rather in their interconnectedness with their geographical, social, political, economic and cultural contexts. And while we don't talk about variables, we learn to identify and weigh them, instinctively and without pretense of quantification. We avoid the trap of the single variable (the strand) or even braiding a few strands as into a rope. Historians are weavers of polychromatic multitextured fabrics.

Several experts made predictions that did not come close to materializing and in some instances turned out to be the opposite of what actually happened. My point is not to make them look bad, but rather to highlight the treacherous nature of prognostication and the ease of falling into the trap of a single variable -- in this case, the worldwide pandemic.

Peter T. Coleman of Columbia University's Psychology Department applied the "common enemy" theory: the pandemic as a "formidable enemy" that "might provide us with fusion-like energy and a singularity of purpose to help us reset and regroup" generating a shift "toward greater national solidarity and functionality."

Another psychologist, Margaret Klein Salamon, spoke to The Guardian about the "power of shared emotion" manifested through "people calling each other up" to see how they are doing. Yet another psychologist, Sherry Turkle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, foresaw positive transformations in the digital world: "This is breaking open a medium with human generosity and empathy. This is looking within and asking, 'What can I authentically offer?'"

The common enemy effect did not happen; those tend to be short-lived. Remember the outburst of national unity and increased church attendance after 9/11? If bipartisan approval of a particular president is any indication of national unity, George W. Bush's soared from 51% to 91% but dropped sharply soon thereafter. And while church attendance increased (only slightly) after the 9/11 attacks, within two months it had reverted to previous levels.

In similarly optimistic terms, sociologist Eric Klinenberg, director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, categorically declared the end of "hyper-individualism." "The coronavirus pandemic," Klinenberg told Politico, "will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value, and, in the long run, it could help us rediscover the better version of ourselves."

A practicing journalist, Amy Sullivan, director of strategy for Vote Common Good, speculated that "maybe -- just maybe" we would see an easing of the culture wars and become "newly conscious of interdependency and community." "I can't predict the precise effects," she continued, "but I'm sure we'll be seeing them for years."


Rather than coming together, higher levels of solidarity and a drop in individualism, Americans have witnessed increased selfishness, incivility and violence, everywhere from the county road to the school board hall, from the airplane cabin to the grocery store, from social media to the political tribune.

Two other expert predictions that fell short caught my attention. Villanova University Political Scientist Mark L. Schrad anticipated a new brand of patriotism. "When all is said and done," he said, "perhaps we will recognize" the sacrifices of doctors, nurses and other care givers "as true patriotism, saluting our doctors and nurses, genuflecting and saying, 'Thank you for your service.'" "We will give them," Schrad continued, "guaranteed health benefits and corporate discounts, and build statues and have holidays for this new class of people who sacrifice their health and their lives for ours." Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, concluded that the pandemic "already forced people back to accepting that expertise matters." He mentioned Dr. Anthony Fauci in particular and speculated that "it may -- one might hope -- return Americans to a new seriousness."

Rates of approval for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fauci and other scientists leading the fight against the pandemic were high at the beginning but as the 2020 elections got closer, they dropped 30% among Republicans and increased by a modest 6% among Democrats.

No statue for Dr. Fauci anytime soon. And as far as Americans becoming more serious, don't hold your breath.

Next week, my two cents' worth.


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History" and "Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

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