Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > The Polarized, Partisan Pandemic

Apr 1, 2020

The Polarized, Partisan Pandemic

tags: public health,partisanship,coronavirus,COVID-19

The Partisan Pandemic

There’s nothing like a crisis to bring out in bold relief the differences between left and right. The coronavirus bailout passed by Congress and signed into law just a couple of days ago presented a facade of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans: the bill passed the Senate 96 to 0. But I have been struck by how differently the two parties have approached their responsibilities to Americans and America in this unprecedented medical and economic disaster. There has been nearly blindered media focus on Trump and the lying incompetence with which he has proposed one bad idea after another, while not doing what everyone thinks should be done, then bragging about it. It’s worth looking beyond him to the political struggles across the country to save lives and win votes.

It’s important to see that the coronavirus has affected Democratic states much more heavily than Republican states thus far, because Democrats control urban states where the virus struck earlier and more rapidly. That partially explains the partisan differences in response to the pandemic at the level of state governments. The first states to issue statewide stay-at-home orders were California (March 19), Illinois (March 21), New Jersey (March 21), and New York (March 22), all states with Democratic governments and large urban populations.

The next wave of statewide orders between March 22 and March 29 included 22 states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska. This group includes 8 states under Democratic control, 10 where the state government is mixed, and 4 Republican states.

The final group over the past couple of days includes 3 Republican states, Arizona, Kansas and Tennessee, two mixed states, North Carolina and Maryland, and one Democratic state, Virginia. Still with no statewide orders are two Democratic states, Maine and Nevada, 2 mixed states, Iowa and Pennsylvania, and 14 Republican states across the South and West. Summarizing, only 2 out of 15 Democratic states and 2 out of 14 mixed-government states do not have statewide orders, but 14 out of 21 Republican states lack them.

Within states without statewide orders, there are many counties or cities where local stay-at-home orders have been issued. Again, these tend to follow partisan differences. In heavily Republican Mississippi, the only municipality to issue a stay-at-home order was Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, whose mayor is a Democrat. The 6 states where no jurisdiction has issued an order, as identified by the NY Times, include 4 of the states which voted most heavily for Trump in 2016.

Some people have gotten news coverage for their seeming indifference to reasonable precautions and other people’s health.  We might call them outliers on the spectrum of responses. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt faced wide criticism after he tweeted a photo of himself and his family at a crowded restaurant on March 14. The next day he declared a state of emergency for Oklahoma. Pastor Tony Spell in Baton Rouge defied the state’s orders about social distancing to hold massive services twice last week. He told a reporter that he is not concerned about his congregants contracting the virus. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated.” Devin Nunes, Congressman from California, urged Americans to go out to eat on March 15: “it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant.” Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie, an opponent of the stimulus bill that was just passed, forced many representatives to travel to Washington to vote for it, earning even Trump’s criticism. Within the media, FOX News is an outlier, because of the lack of concern about the spreading virus broadcast by some, not all, of its stars. Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Trish Regan downplayed the dangers and blamed Trump’s opponents for whipping up unnecessary “hysteria”. That is, until Trump declared a national emergency, and they changed their tune. All of these outliers are Republicans.

Meanwhile, the most politically active Democrat has been New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose daily media briefings have displayed constantly updated statistics, careful reasoning, and concern for the victims of the disease. His briefings have been broadcast live by the major news networks, making him a media star. He is exhibit A for what government can do and should do in a crisis.

The background of these widely differing political responses is the gulf between Republican and Democratic voters in their views of the pandemic. A Gallup poll in early March showed that 42% of Republicans were very or somewhat worried about the virus, versus 73% of Democrats. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll in mid-March showed that 54% of Republicans, but only 20% of Democrats thought the coronavirus threat had been blown out of proportion. The demographic groups with the greatest allegiance to Trump are the same that have taken the least precautions to prevent the spread of the virus: white males without a college education, people from small towns and rural communities.

These partisan differences reflect the circular interaction among mutually reinforcing causes: the early virulence in a few cities and the lack of cases in rural areas; the suspicion among Republicans across the country of the “elites”, the medical professionals who have provided accurate information and warnings for months; and the official Republican messaging, led by Trump, that there was nothing to worry about.

Less easy to explain is why the recent sharp reversal in Trump’s message has not led to skepticism among his supporters. After suggesting that everything would be over by Easter, Trump on Sunday said that 2.2 million people might die unless preventative measures are taken. “And so if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000, that’s a horrible number, maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100 and 200,000, we all, together, have done a very good job.” In China, there have been less than 3500 deaths. Worldwide the death toll just passed 40,000. Thus his new message is that if 200,000 Americans die, he, Trump, has “done a very good job”.

And Republicans will believe that.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

March 31, 2020

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