The Cost of Political Polarization During a Pandemic

At a time when unity is needed, we have a president who excels at dividing.

During the coronavirus crisis, we’ve been hearing a lot about the challenge governors face in dealing with Donald Trump. But as Ron Brownstein reports, there is also a battle going on between more progressive local officials in metropolitan areas and their Republican governors.

Though concern is rising about the outbreak in all areas of the country, the share of rural residents who say they are “very worried” about contracting the disease still lagged well behind the number in urban and suburban areas in an ABC/Washington Post Poll released last week.

Across many states with Republican governors, these diverging perspectives have contributed to sharp splits between the states’ policies and those adopted by the largest population centers.

In recent days, cities including Miami, Birmingham, Nashville, Atlanta, Jackson (Mississippi), Houston, Dallas, Austin, St. Louis, Phoenix and Tucson have adopted complete stay-at-home orders or other tight restrictions on movement and economic activity. But in each case, their state governments—Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri and Arizona—have resisted comparable statewide limits.

As Brownstein reports, many of these Republican governors are making political arguments against things like stay-at-home orders.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves last week painted extensive shut-down orders as an expression of overly intrusive government. “In times such as these, you always have experts who believe they know best for everybody,” he said. “You have some folks who think that government ought to take over everything in times of crisis—that they, as government officials, know better than individual citizens.”

Similarly, Missouri’s GOP governor, Mike Parson, argued that rather than government action “it is going to be personal responsibility” that wins the struggle against the virus.

In those responses, you see examples of some of the GOP’s foundational principles at work—threatening the lives of the people of their state. While Reeves embraces the kind of “truthiness” that dismisses expertise, Parson is rejecting the whole idea of government action.

This conflict between local officials and governors is an example of how the coronavirus crisis has become part of the so-called “culture war.” That is the point made by McKay Coppins when he suggests that “social distancing is morphing from a public-health to a political act.” His examples of how a few individuals are reacting at the moment echo not only the response from Republican governors but the coronavirus deniers.

Terry Trahan, a manager at a cutlery store in Lubbock, Texas, acknowledged that a certain “toxic tribalism” was informing people’s attitudes toward the pandemic. “If someone’s a Democrat, they’re gonna say it’s worse,” he told me, “and if someone’s a Republican, they’re gonna say it’s bad, but it’s getting better.”

As an immunocompromised cancer survivor, Trahan said he’s familiar with commonsense social-distancing practices. But as a conservative, he’s become convinced that many Democrats are so invested in the idea that the virus will be disastrous that they’re pushing for prolonged, unnecessary shutdowns in pursuit of vindication…

Katherine Vincent-Crowson, a 35-year-old self-defense instructor from Slidell, Louisiana, has watched in horror this month as businesses around her city were forced to close by state decree. A devotee of Ayn Rand, Vincent-Crowson told me Louisiana’s shelter-in-place order was a frightening example of government overreach.

This is not a matter of “both sides do it” with Democrats arguing in favor of things like social distancing and Republicans against. This is, as Coppins suggested, the politicization of public health, with one side paying attention to facts and science while the other side reactively rails against it all.

In an editorial about the way Christian nationalists have paved the way for this dismissal of facts and science, Katherine Stewart made this important point.

Religious nationalism has brought to American politics the conviction that our political differences are a battle between absolute evil and absolute good. When you’re engaged in a struggle between the “party of life” and the “party of death,” as some religious nationalists now frame our political divisions, you don’t need to worry about crafting careful policy based on expert opinion and analysis. Only a heroic leader, free from the scruples of political correctness, can save the righteous from the damned. Fealty to the cause is everything; fidelity to the facts means nothing.

While some of us have trouble reconciling how the “party of life” is willing to put so many lives at risk during this pandemic, keep in mind that the lines have long been drawn in the battle between absolute evil and absolute good. Everything else is fungible for those whose priority is to be loyal to the cause.

Of course, all of this must be put in the context of a president whose sole focus is to divide the world into loyalists and enemies, while doing all he can to ignite a battle between the two. I was struck by how beautifully Kerry Eleveld described the alternative in a piece titled, “At a time when unity is the only thing that can save us, all Trump knows how to do is divide.”

One of the hardest parts of this disease is the grinding isolation it has visited upon us. Many people have stopped visiting their family’s treasured elders, their parents and grandparents, for fear of infecting them with a pathogen that is particularly deadly for people in the later stages of life. Many younger singles are confronting their angst alone, separated from the community of friends that forms their chosen family. Some are tragically separated from the person with whom they built their entire adult life—either sick and alone in the care of a hospital or unable to bring a sickened partner the simple comfort of human touch. Some of us, tragically, have given the last hug or smile we ever will to someone we love and adore.

This is a time, above all, calling out for a leader who can bring us together through our shared experience of vulnerability and uncertainty. Frankly, it’s a time custom made for a struggling president to soothe the nation, call upon our collective strength, and reassure us that we can endure, that the dawn is coming, and that we will arise from this tragedy a stronger, more unified country.

Take a look at how Joe Biden did exactly that in a recent video.

In line with Biden’s message, this might be the most powerful news I’ve seen in the last few weeks.

For Americans who are feeling the isolation, vulnerability, and uncertainty of the moment, that is exactly the kind of message that can unite us all. Given the failure of our president, it is important for all of us to find it where we can.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.