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What will life look like post-pandemic? History gives us some hints

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Times Square is mostly empty, Monday, March 23, 2020 in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered most New Yorkers to stay home from work to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

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Last week, I noted that when the coronavirus crisis is over, things will return to a sense of normalcy. But they will never be the same. This week, we are getting our first hints of just how much things will change. How will our society deal with an unprecedented spike in unemployment? How many restaurants will never reopen? How will children go to school and college? How will we get together with friends and family? 

I currently live in New York City and believe that, over the past generation, it has lived up to the hype of being the greatest city in the world. But looking out my window at empty streets during rush hour, I suspect the coronavirus will be the end of New York City as we know it. It has instantly become a city of the past, a city that thrived in an era that is rapidly coming to an end. 

But it’s so much more than New York. In the world that follows intense social distancing, every city, town, and community will be forced to grapple with their proper role in society. How will they bring people together while maintaining adequate health and safety precautions? 

In a few years, data junkies will begin providing a statistical portrait of all the changes that are now just around the corner. Perhaps it will be measured in terms of the places people are moving away from or where they are going. Maybe it will be calculated in terms of how many people attend sporting events or concerts. Certainly, some of the data will highlight a new economic landscape. 

Whatever the numbers and the topics, the stats will define a new normal that is much different than the world we are leaving behind. As we hunker down to deal with the immediate threat, it’s impossible to know what the new normal will look like. 

But as is almost always the case, we can get some clues about the future by studying the past. 

The first lesson is to recognize that the coronavirus is not creating this new era. Instead, it is forcing us to recognize and respond to an era that has already begun. It is also turbocharging the pace of change. Cultural changes that would have unfolded gradually over a generation or two will now take place in just a few years. 

This distinction between thinking the coronavirus created the new era and recognizing it’s merely a catalyst for change is important. To understand why it matters, consider the relationship between the founding of our nation and the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate that great document every July 4, but it did not create our nation. 

In fact, the War of Independence had begun 15 months before the Declaration was written. The fighting continued for five years after it was announced. A full decade was required before the new nation could put in place a working Constitution. 

More importantly, Britain’s North American colonies had been growing a separate national culture for more than 150 years. University of Utah professor Gillian Brown noted that the change “began quietly in homes and schoolrooms across the colonies in the reading lessons women gave to children.” Brown added, “Long before revolutionary sermons and speeches, the ideal of self-determination resided intimately in the colonial imagination.” 

It was through the popular culture that “Americans developed a sense of themselves as a sovereign people distinct from England.” That’s what created our nation. 

The noble ideals eloquently expressed in the Declaration also came from popular culture. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood observed that colonial Americans had more pragmatic experience with freedom and self-governance “than any part of mankind in the 18th century.” Wood added, “While the speculative philosophers of Europe were laboriously searching their minds in an effort to decide the first principles of liberty, the Americans had come to experience vividly that liberty in their everyday lives.” 

Once again, the best way to see the roots of our future is to look back at our recent cultural history. 

Why does this matter in the coronavirus era? 

Because it tells us where to look for a glimpse of the future. 

The Declaration of Independence was a great document that forced the world to recognize that a new nation had been created — a nation based upon a new set of political ideals. But it gave only vague hints of what was coming next. To understand where the new realities were leading, you had to look at the popular culture in the decades leading up to 1776. That culture nurtured the roots of what America would become — everything from the traditions of community problem-solving to the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit, from the American Revolution to the Civil War. 

The same is true today. 

The coronavirus is bringing about massive societal disruption and there is no turning back. In the wake of its destruction, the pandemic is forcing us to recognize that a new era has arrived. Once again, the best way to see the roots of our future is to look back at our recent cultural history. 

In the coming weeks, I’ll explain why that history provides me with a glimmer of hope during this difficult time.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”