One of the most striking elements of the coronavirus crisis is how easily the response has been folded into America’s partisan culture war. From the earliest days of the outbreak, Republicans in Congress, party-aligned media, and voters have tended to play down the pandemic and treat the push for social distancing skeptically — while also positing nefarious motives for liberals and public officials who take opposite positions. There are exceptions, like Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, but corona-skepticism and hyper-partisanship has been more much the rule.
The Trump administration was infamously slow to embrace distancing and conduct widespread testing; even now, President Donald Trump is privately pushing to rapidly reopen the country starting May 1. Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, who didn’t declare a state of emergency until April 2, recently declared WWE wresting an “essential service” that can continue to broadcast live shows. Conservative media has cast Democratic governors who have imposed distancing as authoritarians, pitting allegedly authentic Americans who want to reopen the country against out-of-touch liberal elites who don’t care about the lockdown’s economic consequences.
It is, of course, desperately important to establish a sense of shared reality and responsibility here. You need a cross-elite consensus on coronavirus, not only to swiftly pass essential legislation like more expansive forms of stimulus, but also to make sure the entire citizenry actually follows public health best practices in their daily lives. The more Republicans and allied media treat the coronavirus as a partisan issue, the harder those things will become.
How did the coronavirus become folded into the culture war in such a harmful way? One of the best explanations I’ve seen comes from David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. The GOP, Hopkins writes on his personal blog, is failing on coronavirus not by accident — but because the party was built in a way that produced failure.
“The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the government or solve specific social problems,” Hopkins writes. “So perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that an array of subjects, from what medical treatment might help COVID patients to how important it is to take measures protecting the lives of the elderly, have been drawn into the perpetual political wars.”
This analysis draws on Hopkins’s book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, coauthored with Michigan State’s Matt Grossmann. In the book, Hopkins and Grossman argue that there’s a fundamental structural difference between the Democratic and Republican parties: While the former is a coalition of social groups, the latter is primarily a vehicle for a single cohesive ideological movement.
This difference makes it much easier for conservative Republicans to push the party to the fringes on the right than it does for leftist Democrats to do the same. But it also means that the GOP is less able to shift its policy approach to adapt to specific policy problems: It is so consumed by ideology, so preoccupied with the war on Democrats and liberals, that it cannot countenance cooperating with them to address a shared national problem. The Republican party needs a perpetual liberal enemy.
In other countries — Canada, for example — the coronavirus has created unprecedented levels of cross-party cooperation and consensus, as everyone recognizes that it’s in the common national interest to fight the virus through mass measures like social distancing.
In the United States, by contrast, even positions on basic medical issues, like whether hydroxychloroquine should be promoted as an effective therapy for the virus, are becoming partisan-signaling fights. Conservative media in the US is touting a more relaxed “Swedish response” to the crisis — despite Sweden’s lack of restrictions producing far higher death tolls than those of its neighbors — and arguing that liberals are exploiting the restrictions to impose their agenda on the country.
Sometimes, the impulse to polarize everything works well for Republicans in crass political terms. It helped Trump escape impeachment despite clear evidence of his guilt. But Hopkins thinks it might not work out so well this time around:
Republicans need a party-wide reset of priorities. There has seldom been a time in recent political history when daily partisan point-scoring has been rendered more irrelevant. The general election is far enough away that good policy is good politics: the best way for the ruling party to serve its own electoral interests is to work as hard as possible over the next seven months to render COVID manageable and prevent economic freefall.
The widespread public confidence that will be necessary for “normal life” to resume simply can’t be jawboned back into existence via daily press conferences, radio broadcasts, or Fox News monologues. If Republicans lose the battle with the coronavirus, they won’t have much of a chance to win the fight against liberalism.
Owning the libs is the raison d’être of the current Republican party. It’s not a governing strategy in normal times. But in a crisis, it’s downright catastrophic — and quite possibly self-defeating.