An unconscionable number of people will die and many more than that will get sick because Republican elites deliberately politicized COVID-19:
That polarization has now opened political rifts in vaccination rates, with people’s decision to get a shot or not today a better predictor of states’ electoral outcomes than their votes in prior elections. It’s led the US’s vaccination campaign to hit a wall, missing President Joe Biden’s July 4 goal. Meanwhile, the more infectious delta variant is spreading, raising the risk of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in unvaccinated — and often heavily Republican — areas.
To put it bluntly: Polarization is killing people.
“That’s a perfectly accurate interpretation,” Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, told me. “We’re at the point where people are choosing riskier personal behavior due to following the lead of people in their party.”
It didn’t have to be this way. Perceptions about Covid-19 weren’t too divided by political party very early on in the pandemic. And while America’s peers around the world certainly saw political debates and conflicts over Covid-19, they by and large managed to avoid the level of polarization that the US has seen, with other nations working across political lines to take the virus seriously and suppress it.
But the US began to walk a different path once then-President Donald Trump downplayed the coronavirus — deliberately, as he later revealed — and Republican leaders and the rank and file followed his lead. Whether you took the pandemic seriously very quickly became another way to affiliate with red or blue teams, leading some to do things more dangerous for their own well-being just because of their political party affiliation.
“Partisanship is now the strongest and most consistent divider in health behaviors,” Shana Gadarian, a political scientist at Syracuse University, told me.
Overcoming this will require confronting an all-encompassing trend in American political life. And while experts have some ideas about the best way to reach Republicans, it may be too late; with a year and a half of Trump and other Republicans downplaying the risk of the virus, there’s a chance that views around Covid-19 — and the vaccine as a result — are just too baked in now.
It’s one of the major reasons experts worry that Southern states, which are heavily Republican and have among the lowest vaccination rates in the US, will soon see outbreaks of Covid-19. Indeed, several Southern states, from Arkansas to Missouri to Texas, have reported some of the highest increases in cases in recent weeks. Covid-19 deaths in the US are still hovering around 200 a day — more than the number of murders or car crash deaths in recent years.
There is nothing inherent to Republicanism or conservatism that made polarization around Covid-19 inevitable. Around the world, countries led by those on the right, like Australia’s Scott Morrison or Germany’s Angela Merkel, have taken the virus seriously and embraced stringent precautions. From Canada to South Korea, countries that are at times roiled by serious political conflict by and large avoided it around Covid-19 as all sides of the aisle confronted the real threat it presented.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” Gadarian said. “There’s really nothing about the nature of being a right-wing party that would require undercutting the threat of Covid from the very beginning.”
The 10,000th spoon when all you need is a knife it that this deliberate politicization didn’t help Trump, at all; had his COVID-19 response been even remotely competent he probably would have been re-elected.
But the Republican Party is an outlier even among major reactionary parties in liberal democracies, and when it comes to anything involving healthcare policy it’s an outright death cult.