The pandemic has been a political non-event

The idea of a historic non-event matters, for we are living through a profound instance of one. By far the most striking thing about the pandemic is how little it has changed politics. Across the world, the state has reigned over excess deaths or curbs on freedom, or both. Few have been toppled in consequence. Few have even been made to sweat.

After 11 years in power, Britain’s Conservatives are still ahead in the polls. Justin Trudeau has been re-elected as prime minister of Canada. Germany has just held an election of almost self-parodying good sense (the populist AfD dipped to one-tenth of the vote). Emmanuel Macron is favoured to renew his presidency in France. Among the non-democracies, no major autocrat has fallen. Of the most prominent departures in world leadership, Angela Merkel was retiring anyway and Japan’s Shinzo Abe had health problems.

This leaves Donald Trump as the political “victim” of the past 18 months. And even in the former US president’s case, it is hard to know if it was the pandemic that told in the end. He was polling badly enough before it. When he sank to a double-digit deficit against Joe Biden, in mid-June 2020, it was during his response to Black Lives Matter protests. The pandemic was three months old by then…

After the 2008 crash, progressives equated the disgrace of capitalism with public approval for their alternative. The western centre-left spent much of the ensuing decade in opposition. In that getting ahead of events, there is a warning. Yes, in the US and elsewhere, taxes and spending may go up a bit, and on a lasting, not just emergency, basis. But it is no longer clear that 2020 has joined 1945 and 1979/80 as a true rupture in economic thought. It has plainly not matched 2011 (the Arab Spring) or 2016 (the year of Brexit, Trump and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte) as a roiler of political establishments.