Apr 28, 2024 - Politics & Policy

2020's great undoing

Illustration of an American flag with the bottom stripe forming a reverse arrow

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many of the seismic societal shifts that took root in 2020 — a year of unprecedented disruptions to American health, wealth and civil harmony — are in the process of being partially or fully reversed.

Why it matters: The head-spinning snapbacks reflect a society still struggling to find its footing — and learn the right lessons — after a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, nationwide racial unrest, and one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history.

Driving the news: In recent weeks, employers have cracked down on workplace protests against Israel's war in Gaza — a remarkable shift from 2020, when Corporate America embraced activism and aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement.

  • "This is a business, and not a place ... to fight over disruptive issues or debate politics," Google CEO Sundar Pichai warned in a note to staff last week after the tech giant fired more than 50 protesting employees.

The big picture: Across politics, business, education and the economy, a number of the sudden, radical shifts we experienced in 2020 have proven short-lived.

1. DEI: America's racial justice reckoning after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 led many organizations to hire diversity officers and invest heavily in efforts to address racial inequality.

  • Over the past two years, conservatives have waged a remarkably successful war against those initiatives — prompting many companies to cut DEI funding and drop racial justice as a talking point.

2. Policing: Amid the 2020 protests and calls to defund the police, a number of cities cut their law enforcement budgets.

  • The next year, many of those cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Denver and Dallas — restored and even increased police funding in response to surging violent crime.
  • Police reforms are now being rolled back in cities and states across the country, with "defund the police" shifting from a progressive slogan to a Republican weapon that very few Democrats align with.

3. Immigration: During his 2020 campaign, President Biden cast former President Trump's harsh border policies as part of a "battle for the soul of the country" that inspired his decision to run.

  • Amid a record wave of migrants illegally crossing the border over the last several years, Biden is now considering a dramatic executive order that would impose Trump-like restrictions on asylum-seekers.
  • Half of Americans — including 42% of Democrats — say they'd support mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, according to an Axios Vibes survey by The Harris Poll released Thursday.

4. Work from home: Many companies that embraced permanent remote work during the pandemic changed their attitudes and instituted return-to-office policies, as executives lamented a loss of creativity and collaboration.

  • Most American downtowns saw a bump in visitor activity between March 2023 and February 2024, indicating that struggling cities are finally recovering — albeit slowly — from the pandemic.

5. Standardized testing: In recent months, Harvard, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth all reinstated standardized tests requirements for admission after dropping them during the pandemic.

  • While universities originally nixed the requirements out of necessity to prevent in-person gathering, the policies were bolstered by arguments that the exams perpetuated economic inequality.

The other side: Plenty of pandemic novelties — including the COVID-19 virus itself — are here to stay. Americans continue to spend heavily on home delivery, for example, even with the era of lockdowns long behind us.

Between the lines: Many of 2020's major societal shifts were facilitated and cheered by liberal-leaning Americans.

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