Sheila Suess Kennedy: Our hyper-partisan politics can be deadly

According to a recent Philadelphia Inquirer report on the pandemic, new cases have increased 84% in states that don’t require masks and fallen 25% in states that do.

Those numbers would seem to confirm what all those pesky medical experts and epidemiologists have been saying: Mask-wearing protects us (or, more accurately, protects other people from being infected by us). Evidently, ideology is stronger than rationality. America’s tribal polarization has overwhelmed self-preservation.

In a recent New York Times poll, a majority of Americans strongly favored measures to control the spread of the pandemic over efforts to “reopen” the economy. When those numbers were broken down, however, Republican voters disagreed—prioritizing the economy.

Self-identified Democrats are significantly more likely to wear a mask and engage in social distancing than self-identified Republicans.

That polling reminded me of a survey a couple of years ago—well before the pandemic—in which significant numbers of Americans who would not object to their children marrying across racial or religious lines strongly disapproved of the prospect of a child marrying someone of the opposite political party.

Talk about “identity politics”!

In today’s highly polarized America, an individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Affiliation with a political party has made Americans’ increasingly tribal social identities most predictive—and most consequential.

Political scientist Lilliana Mason has argued that, “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.

The fact of partisan polarization doesn’t, however, explain why identifying as Republican means being substantially less likely to believe that COVID-19 poses a genuine threat. Of course, there’s President Trump’s determination to ignore the threat—to insist it is an artifact of testing, or a Democratic “hoax,” but in a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman offered a different, and sobering, theory, arguing that the GOP’s coronavirus denial is rooted in a worldview that goes well beyond Trump and his electoral prospects.

The key point is that COVID-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the party wants to acknowledge.

It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate: people of a different race or supercilious liberals.

As Adrian Bardon of Wake Forest University recently wrote in The Conversation news blog, “Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes,” and engage in what political scientists call “motivated reasoning” to dismiss inconvenient or unwelcome facts. This phenomenon isn’t limited to today’s GOP; the “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-GMO” activists tend to come from the left side of the political spectrum and are equally dismissive of science that doesn’t fit with their ideological preferences.

In his book, “The Truth About Denial,” Bardon reminds us that our human “sense of self” is intimately tied to our tribal membership and our identity group’s beliefs. We are all prone to engage in confirmation bias, accepting expert testimony that confirms our prejudices and rejecting facts and data that contradict them.

Unfortunately, in some situations, ignoring facts can kill you.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

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One thought on “Sheila Suess Kennedy: Our hyper-partisan politics can be deadly

  1. “The fact of partisan polarization doesn’t, however, explain why identifying as Republican means being substantially less likely to believe that COVID-19 poses a genuine threat.”

    Know one says it doesn’t pose a threat, but the facial covering being proposed are a greater risk then being with out. Actually it is not partisan polarization, it really boils down to am I an adult and can I mange my own risks. Or do I need to be told what to do because I am not capable of being an adult and accessing the risk.

    Sheila and the progressive liberal socialist she represents are great at telling other what they should or should not do. Because if you are free thinker and can assess your own risks you are dangerous and can not be controlled by the enlightened.

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