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How political polarization broke America’s vaccine campaign

The US’s partisan divides have left much of the country vulnerable to Covid-19 — leading to unnecessary deaths.

President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 14, 2020.
President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 14, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Covid-19 epidemic in the United States risks becoming a tale of “two Americas,” as Anthony Fauci warned in June: a nation where regions with higher vaccination rates are able to beat back the coronavirus, while those with lower vaccination rates continue to see cases and deaths.

At face value, it’s a division between those who are vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated. But, increasingly, it’s also a division between Democrats and Republicans — as vaccination has ended up on one of the biggest dividing lines in the US, political polarization.

Polarization, of course, is not a new force in American life. Growing polarization doesn’t just mean a Congress more starkly dividing between left and right; it means people’s political views now closely hew with views on seemingly unrelated issues, like which movies should win Oscars. But throughout the pandemic, polarization has manifested as stark differences in how Democrats and Republicans each approach Covid-19, from hand-washing to social distancing to masking.

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.

Still, it’s worth trying to, at the very least, heed the lessons of Covid-19 — if not for the current pandemic, then for future public health crises. Politics will always play a role in the response to any public health crisis, but it doesn’t have to be this bad — certainly not to the point where one side is denying the dangers of a virus killing millions around the globe.

Americans have already seen how badly this can play out, as hundreds of thousands have died and much of the country remains vulnerable to resurgences of Covid-19. The country can take steps to prevent that from happening again.

Covid-19 has been extremely polarized in the US

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.”

It’s not hard to imagine a timeline in which Trump took the coronavirus very seriously in a way that aligned with his rhetoric and policy goals: tightly locking the country’s borders, for example, and rallying Americans to embrace their patriotic duty to mask up and social distance to protect the nation from a virus originating in China.

Obviously, that’s not what happened.

At first, in February, there actually wasn’t a big split between Democrats and Republicans over whether the virus was a “real threat.” It wasn’t until Trump and others in his party spoke out more about the virus that Republicans became more likely to say the virus isn’t a danger. Elite cues fostered different American reactions to Covid-19.

Trump actively downplayed the virus, claiming in February 2020 that the virus would quickly disappear “like a miracle” from America and comparing it to the flu. Republican politicians and media followed suit, with blue-red fissures soon forming between states that were sticking to tighter precautions and which weren’t.

Public attitudes quickly took form. In March 2020, 33 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Democrats said Covid-19 was a major threat to the health of the US, according to the Pew Research Center — a hint of early polarization. By July 2020, the gap had widened: 46 percent of Republicans saw Covid-19 as a threat to US health, versus 85 percent of Democrats.

That translated to reported behaviors. In a Gallup survey conducted in June and July of 2020, 94 percent of Democrats said they “always” or “very often” wore a mask outside their home, while just 46 percent of Republicans said the same.

“We saw it very early on,” Gadarian said. “The gaps in health behavior and all sorts of other attitudes are pretty steady over time. It got locked in and affected how people take in new information.”

Fast-forward to today, and this polarization remains in place with the vaccines. According to Civiqs’s polling, 95 percent of Democrats are already vaccinated or want to get vaccinated, while just 50 percent of Republicans report the same. The share of Republicans who reject the vaccine hasn’t significantly budged all year, remaining in the range of 41 to 46 percent.

Measuring the correlation between a state’s vaccination rate and 2020 election results, Masket found a coefficient of 0.85, with 1 meaning a one-to-one correlation and 0 representing no correlation. As Masket noted, “We almost never see this high a correlation between variables in the social sciences.” In fact, he added, “vaccination rates are a better predictor of the 2020 election than the 2000 election is. That is, if you want to know how a state voted in 2020, you can get more information from knowing its current vaccination rate than from knowing how it voted 20 years ago.”

Yet Republicans can take public health crises seriously, as many have with the opioid epidemic and did with the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak. Some research also suggests that Republican governors who took on Covid-19 earnestly, such as Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, managed to sway more of their constituents to embrace precautions.

Given that evidence, some experts speculated that, in an alternate reality, a President Mitt Romney or President Jeb Bush would have taken the Covid-19 threat much more seriously — and perhaps avoided polarizing the issue much, if at all. “Almost any other president would have recognized the severity of it, largely being in sync with the FDA and CDC,” Masket said.

Covid-19 has made polarization much more lethal

The consequences of polarization around Covid-19 are now clear. As David Leonhardt explained in the New York Times, there’s now a close correlation between vaccination rates and coronavirus cases. Over one week in June, counties where between 0 and 30 percent of people were vaccinated had nearly triple the number of new cases as counties with 60-plus percent vaccination rates.

These low-vaccine areas are often Republican bastions. Based on polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the major drivers of vaccine hesitancy among Republicans is the view that the threat of Covid-19 has been exaggerated. That early polarization driven by Trump’s downplaying of the virus, dating back to February 2020, explains why Republicans are much less likely to get vaccinated today.

The best hope of reversing this now, as a study by Stanford’s Polarization and Social Change Lab indicated earlier this year, seems, logically, for Republicans to forcefully and consistently argue that the coronavirus is a real threat and that the vaccine is safe and effective at preventing infection. While there have been some attempts by Republicans at this, with Trump briefly speaking favorably of the vaccines at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, these messages have been few and far between. Some Republicans, such as Sens. Rand Paul (KY) and Ron Johnson (WI), have also continued to cast doubt on the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.

It’s a bit baffling, because Trump has a great opportunity to take credit for the vaccines. While many experts doubted that a vaccine could come out in the first year of a pandemic caused by a novel virus, Trump promised to get a vaccine done in 2020, poured money into the task, and ultimately was right. Just about any president likely would have put resources toward a vaccine, but part of being a politician is taking credit for good things that happen while you’re in office — even if your unique ability to lead isn’t really responsible for them.

“A lot of people, including me, were dismissive or skeptical [the vaccine] could happen so quickly, but it did,” Masket said. “This is something Trump could really be crowing about.”

In other words: Trump and the Republican Party have a chance to take credit for saving the US from the coronavirus — and, by doing so, help actually save the US from the coronavirus by getting more people vaccinated. So far, they have completely whiffed the opportunity.

Then again, it now may be too late. After a year and a half, Americans’ beliefs about the coronavirus have solidified. So if Republican leaders were to suddenly change their tune, they could risk a revolt from the rank and file more than they would change people’s minds. “If you’ve had many months to think about this, you’re going to start to settle into a more permanent view,” Robb Willer, director of Stanford’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, told me.

To that end, the best thing would have been — and would be for future public health crises — for Republican leaders never to politicize the pandemic at all.

Experts told me both sides could have worked together, as some did in other nations, to develop consistent messaging on the virus. Instead of press conferences led by political actors like Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, they could have been primarily presented by less political actors like Fauci and other leaders from federal public health agencies. Trump and Pence could have ensured the message remained depolarized by not publicly clashing with these officials.

Democrats, too, would have needed to avoid falling into the trap of opposing things solely because the Trump administration was proposing them. This reverse polarization played out during the school reopening debate, as some Democrats reflexively criticized Trump’s push to reopen schools, and it now looks like it likely was safe to reopen with some precautions.

It’s a world where everyone is a lot more responsible about a serious public health crisis. And the fact that it’s hard to imagine, especially in the middle of a contentious election year, speaks to just how difficult it will be to overcome a political trend that’s now killing people.

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