Difficult circumstances are said to bring people together. But, if anything, COVID-19 has widened political and cultural fracture lines in the U.S., giving us more to fight over and less reason to trust each other in times to come.
In an election year dominated by two worn-out, mutually loathing legacy political parties, there's no reason to think any of these tensions will be resolved by the outcome of the vote.
Sorted by culture, lifestyle, and political affiliation into two dominant tribes—"red" Republicans and "blue" Democrats—most Americans have declining contact with those outside their own camp, less in common with those who live differently, and slumping opinions of one another to match. Urban and suburban blues disdain those who don't share their values, politics, and way of life, and rural and exurban reds return the sentiment.
Last year, U.S. News & World Report pointed out that "Democrats and Republicans don't just disagree, they hate each other." Sad to say, the polling bears that out.
As of last fall, 80 percent of Democrats described the Republican Party as controlled by racists, according to Public Religion Research Institute polling. A similar percentage of Republicans see the Democratic Party as controlled by socialists.
Half of surveyed Democrats and Republicans alike consider each other "ignorant" and "spiteful" Axios found. More strongly, 21 percent of Democrats said Republicans were "evil," and 23 percent of Republicans said the same about Democrats.
Worse, 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans said that "violence would be justified" if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election, according to Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland. But the prospect of themselves winning the election actually increased support for violence. And that's before Americans started arguing over the seriousness of COVID-19 and the proper way to handle the pandemic.
Now, we know the disease is just one more thing for us to argue about.
A working paper by economists from Stanford, Harvard, and New York University finds "substantial gaps between Republicans and Democrats in beliefs about the severity of COVID-19 and the importance of social distancing." Specifically, "Democrats were consistently more concerned than Republicans about the spread of coronavirus." The authors link the difference of opinion to the concentration of Democrats in densely populated urban areas, while Republicans tend to live in more lightly settled communities. That squares with other polling finding an urban/rural divide in experiences of the pandemic.
Democrats and Republicans also disagree over whether the worst is over, and over the wisdom of restrictive lockdown orders. Kaiser Family Foundation finds that "four in ten Republicans (38%) say such orders do more harm than good," compared to five percent of Democrats.
So it's no surprise that the resulting protests against stay-at-home orders around the country have become yet another partisan flashpoint setting Team Red against Team Blue. Participants who want to return to something resembling normal life, including making a living, are tagged as "covidiots," while their opponents who prefer extended mandatory social-distancing efforts to battle contagion are charged with "pandemic panic."
"Controversy over lockdowns has drawn people on both sides to demonize one another," writes Arnold Kling, who in 2017 authored The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides. "In Demonization Mode, we divide the world into people trying to do good and people trying to do evil, and we characterize those with whom we disagree as trying to do evil."
And the thing about evil people is that you really don't want to be under their control. Losing an election to somebody you disagree with on a few issues is disappointing. Being defeated by evil, though, is a threat to your very existence.
Politicians, being the creatures they are, have done their best to fulfill all of the fears of their enemies.
President Donald Trump, by his own admission, advised Vice President Mike Pence to ignore calls for help from Democratic governors who criticize administration pandemic efforts.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to steal ventilators from hospitals located in upstate counties where voters tend to oppose him and deliver them to New York City and its suburbs, where his supporters are concentrated.
Come November, in elections across the U.S., the partisans of one side or the other will lose to opponents they increasingly see as evil, ignorant, and spiteful. They will have to concede power to people they consider wrong on every important issue, including the response to COVID-19. And they will contemplate the prospect of continuing to be governed by people they know return the contempt, and who they've recently watched abuse position and authority to punish enemies and reward friends. Forget coming together—Americans will be more resentful of each other than ever.
To give those who say disaster brings us together their due, that may be true for discrete events.
"It may be that 'acute' stress, i.e. a one-time stressful experience may lead to social bonding, as shown in the study, but that 'chronic' stress, i.e. repeated exposure to stress over a long period, might wear us out," wrote Emma Seppala of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in Scientific American.
America's division into hostile factions isn't a recent occurrence; the fractures have been deepening and the disagreements growing more bitter for years. This year, instead of being a one-off crisis, the pandemic became a continuation of an ongoing conflict. That's as "chronic" as it gets, and there's nothing to suggest that the stress is going away anytime soon.
The United States, write Thomas Carothers and Andrew O'Donohue for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is one of several politically divided countries where "the pandemic has amplified the already dangerous effects of polarization, with serious ramifications for public health, democratic governance, and social cohesion."
Americans will survive and overcome the pandemic, as they have so many other challenges in the past. Whether they can continue to put up with each other isn't so certain.