Politicians have not hesitated to make the COVID-19 pandemic a political issue and use it to score points on their opposition. But citizens should be displeased that the response of elected officials — and the population generally — has become politicized. It magnifies both the risk of spreading the virus and the broader social harms involved in taking precautions against it.
There was a time early in the pandemic when it seemed as if we would transcend politics. That was certainly the spirit that prevailed early on, as when Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerMichigan's governor should follow Pennsylvania's on school choice expansions Michigan orders 'all-hands-on-deck' response to water crisis Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Michigan leaves majority-Black city with lead-contaminated taps for three years MORE stated on March 12, “This is going to be hard, but we’re going to get through this, and we’re going to get through it together.” But that spirit did not last, in Michigan or elsewhere. Across the nation, the Democratic Party became the spokesman for heavy restrictions and the Republican Party became the party of looser restrictions.
Note that these are just tendencies. Officials everywhere use similar playbooks and adjust their responses based on whether they think the pandemic is getting worse or better. Regardless of whether they want to be more stringent or not, Republican governors increase restrictions when it looks like things are getting worse, and Democratic governors decrease restrictions when it looks like things are getting better. Every governor faces tough decisions about how to act. Democrats may want to restrict more, and Republicans may want to reopen more, but it’s a matter of margins.
Even when orders are backed by the full force of law, people react based on their own judgments and do not blindly follow gubernatorial decrees. Government orders are important, but people’s actions are also informed by peers, the people they trust, and concern for their own reputation.
When our behavior is determined by interwoven personal relationships, then politics matters, too. People trust those with whom they identify, and politics is one of those factors that separates people into sides. If one party says that we need to be very cautious, and the other says that we ought to be less so, then this informs their behavior.
Partisanship also makes it harder to persuade someone. Confirmation bias — the tendency to accept ideas that confirm our belief and disregard evidence that challenges it — means that the trusted partisans on our side are telling the truth and opposing partisans are not. Regardless of whether people on the other side offer persuasive evidence, there is always an excuse to ignore their argument. Left unchecked, partisanship tends to give a simple reason to dismiss that evidence: The people who bring it up have motivations.
Partisanship at the extremes means that one side has the trusted experts while the other side has quacks.
Now that the response to the pandemic is political, Republicans are less cautious and Democrats are more cautious. Both tendencies can lead to bad effects. Being less cautious than is warranted increases the risk that the virus will spread and inflict direct harm. Indirect harm will increase, too — the loss of work and income, uncertainty about when things can get back to normal, and the strains associated with taking various precautions. Being overly cautious unnecessarily extends indirect harms.
Our behaviors instead should be informed not by partisanship but by the real risks we face. Trends in the disease’s incidence and its dangers inform gubernatorial orders, and they should inform individual behaviors as well. Too often, though, people are trapped by partisan interpretations that color the news, causing them to either exaggerate risks or underplay them.
At the extremes, partisans have severe reactions to each other, and altercations result. Strangers shouldn’t be yelling at each other about their precautions. It’s impolite. It’s unpersuasive. And there are better ways to deal with conflicts about what we should be doing. Incivility drains the limited store of social trust we have for each other.
Perhaps that’s the biggest problem with politicizing the pandemic. We needed stronger social trust in order to transcend political barriers. With enough trust, we could have better navigated a dangerous and unpredictable challenge. We could have been on the same page about how to keep the effects of this novel coronavirus at a minimum. Instead, politics made us worse off.
James M. Hohman is director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHohman.