How the pandemic has widened our political divide

There might have been a time when the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic would have united Americans, or at least not exacerbated our divisions. Americans might have been able to agree that China should be strongly condemned for its deadly misconduct in providing false information about the scope of the pandemic and how the virus spreads. Barring entry to the U.S. of people from the pandemic’s epicenter might not have been controversial, never mind been deemed racist by some.

We might have been able to agree that a sensible response to the pandemic requires balancing health and economic considerations and that, with limited information, the optimal policies for getting the balance right are not obvious. Maybe we could even have agreed not to point fingers until the dust settled some.

After all, even in the highly divisive year that followed the disputed election of 2000, Americans were able to unite to some degree during the first few months after 9/11.

However, as Victor Davis Hanson sets forth in this column, the current pandemic has divided Americans, not brought them together. Or maybe it has just exposed more acutely the fault line between conservative and liberal America.

Hanson writes:

When the virus hit, [existing] divides intensified.

Blue-state governors wanted long lockdowns, red-state governors not so much.

Elite professionals, state employees, and the wealthy residents of the coasts feel they can easily ride out a bad recession. They believe that even a miniscule chance of dying from the virus still makes it too risky to go out.

Yet in red states, there are many self-employed people and small-business owners who are always at risk on the margins. They believe they have great odds to beat the virus but not to beat a more deadly depression.

In addition:

Progressives. . .want more connectivity with the world abroad to beat the virus. They rely on elite researchers, statisticians, and epidemiologists to chart and predict the course of the epidemic.

Conservatives are convinced that entrepreneurs and individuals will better save us. Most elites, they believe, were wrong in their modeling, their predictions, and their advice about the contagion. Many conservatives think that the best and brightest had little practical experience, less common sense, and did not live in the real world.

Red-staters look at the lies of the Chinese, the enabling deceptions of the World Health Organization, and the initial failures of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They conclude that transnational organizations are sometimes incompetent and corrupt, and that even our own bureaucracies are too unimaginative, sluggish, haughty, and territorial.

There is probably also a raw political dimension to the clash. In Hanson’s view:

The 2020 election is the unspoken force multiplier of the divide. Blue-state politicians believe that if the lockdown continues, the country won’t recover before November. Donald Trump will then be blamed for the downturn. They hope for a replay of the 1932 election, with Trump as Depression-era Herbert Hoover vs. a progressive challenger with big promises of more programs and larger government.

Maybe if the 9/11 attacks had occurred during a presidential election year, we wouldn’t have had even a month of “coming together.”

At the end of his column, Hanson illustrates, perhaps inadvertently, the scope of the political/cultural divide and the tendency to extract questionable lessons from the pandemic. He writes:

Is there any agreement between red-state and blue-state America?


Red-staters are not flocking to blue-state urban corridors, where the virus hit hardest. They are happy to live in less crowded places, rely on their own cars, have detached homes, and be free of government edicts that often make little sense other than to showcase the dictatorial powers of petty bureaucrats and local officials.

Even blue-staters are beginning to see their mass transit, high-rise living, and clogged streets more as incubators of disease than as the circulatory system of an exciting, high-end life.

Perhaps in this time of plague, Americans can at least agree that the romance of Arcadia is suddenly preferable to the allure of big-city lights.

If Hanson thinks the pandemic will cause urban dwellers to acknowledge the alleged superiority of full-time country living, he is dreaming. The people I know here in the Washington, D.C. area aren’t suddenly yearning to live in “Arcadia.” Nor should anyone expect others to agree that it’s preferable to live someplace other than where they are.

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