For a brief moment there, it looked as though the coronavirus pandemic might escape the muck of partisanship.
It’s true that President Donald Trump, wary of a recession during a reelection year, had first tried to talk the virus into submission. His counterfactual insistence that the situation was under control did nothing to slow the viral spread through February and early March. It did, however, seem to influence the party faithful, as polls showed Republican voters were taking the pandemic far less seriously than Democrats. In other words, the facts of Covid-19 were already politicized. As I suggested last week, it looked as though this process were unfolding just as it had for climate change—but at 1,000x speed.
Then Trump began to shift his message. Suddenly he seemed to grasp the need for drastic measures (while claiming that he’d never hinted otherwise). The White House started repeating the advice from public health experts: Social distancing would be necessary, maybe through the end of summer. In my last piece, I wondered if this new acceptance of reality might keep an epistemic crisis from developing. Perhaps Americans would coalesce into a common understanding of this public health disaster.
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But coronavirus denialism wasn’t in remission; it was only mutating. After a weekend of reported clashes among economic and health officials in the White House, and a spate of skeptical op-eds musing on whether social distancing was really worth its economic cost, Trump laid out a new approach by presidential tweet: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”
By Monday evening, Trump was promising to wrap up social distancing in weeks, not months. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he declared on Tuesday, during a virtual town hall on Fox News. Meanwhile, a rising chorus of Trump followers have been suggesting that some folks will simply have to die to save the economy. “Let's get back to living,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas told Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “Those of us who are 70-plus, we'll take care of ourselves. But don't sacrifice the country.” Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University announced that it’s expecting students and faculty to return from spring break. “Even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country,” said right-wing talk host Glenn Beck. “Because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”
The parallel to climate change, in other words, was even tighter than I realized.
“We went through the stages of climate change denial in the matter of a week,” said Gordon Pennycook, a psychologist at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, who studies how misinformation spreads. Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science who has studied the origins of climate disinformation, spelled out the pattern in an email: “First, one denies the problem, then one denies its severity, and then one says it is too difficult or expensive to fix, and/or that the proposed solution threatens our freedom.”
These strategies, Oreskes explained, can exist side by side, depending on the context. The crudest skeptics, like the snowball-wielding senator from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe, still deny the phenomenon itself: Humans aren’t warming the planet, look how cold it is outside! More sophisticated players, confronting a tidal wave of scientific data, may accept that the Earth is warming, but they argue that the ill effects are overstated and incommensurate with the costs of aggressive action. As a Wall Street Journal op-ed from 2017 put it, the economic damage one might expect from climate change “does not justify policies that cost more than 0.1 percentage point of growth.”
Now we’re faced with the threat of another global catastrophe arising from the clash of nature and modern human activity. As with climate change, the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are difficult to predict with confidence. As with climate change, the uncertainty interval encompasses utter cataclysm. As with climate change, any serious effort to mitigate or stave off this disaster will require major economic disruptions. And, as with climate change, such efforts to save the world must be put in place before any of the experts’ doomsday warnings could ever be proved true.
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So we see the same pattern of skeptical response from Republican elites. Whether it’s driven by self-interest (corporate profits, a president’s hopes of reelection) or by small government ideology, the approach sends a powerful signal to the party’s voters. If you take this problem seriously, you must be one of them, not us.
“The climate change issue has been transformed into a badge of who people think they are,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist and environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “So if you’re a good card-carrying Republican in the Midwest, then you’d better be against that climate change stuff. And if you're a West Coast liberal, or you live in Boulder, like me, of course you support fighting climate change.” When scientific questions become political issues, he added, people’s beliefs become statements of identity. “To some extent we see that with the coronavirus.”
This partisan bubble effect is only amplified by the situation on the ground, where the distribution of infections has been anything but politically neutral. The worst-hit areas so far are deep blue cities in deep blue states: Seattle and New York, as well as San Francisco. For that reason, Pielke holds out hope that the coronavirus debate might not devolve completely into partisan identity signaling. “I’m not ready to say this fits our conventional motivated reasoning model of Republicans and Democrats that we’ve seen on other issues,” he said. As the disease spreads and hits its peak in different places, the impact of direct experience could overwhelm the power of identity.
There is some early evidence for this: A daily tracking poll by Civiqs shows a pronounced rise in concern among Republican voters over the past two weeks. On the other hand, the increase doesn’t directly track the spread of Covid-19: Republican voters in Wyoming (29 confirmed cases), for example, express far more concern than those in Wisconsin (more than 400 cases).
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There’s a lot riding on the outcome of this looming clash between partisanship and reality. At minimum, the politicization of pandemic makes it even harder to evaluate the costs and benefits of the radical policy prescriptions currently on the table. (This is perhaps even harder than it is with climate change: None of the leading proposals to address global warming involves tanking the national economy and launching millions into unemployment.) Debates in good faith will be impossible if positions harden into partisan commitments, and social distancing won’t work very well if Trump keeps urging Americans to get back out there, and half the country listens.
It’s frightening to think what the pattern of climate denial means for the coronavirus crisis. But it might be even more terrifying to think what the pattern of coronavirus denial means for the climate crisis. If a plea to sacrifice human life for the sake of the economy becomes Republican dogma, this does not bode well for our ability to handle the even greater threat of rising temperatures around the world. After all, the worst effects of global warming are still decades away. Our elderly ruling class, and the elderly voters who elect them, may be dead and gone by the time Miami is underwater. But those same old folks are precisely the ones who are most at risk from Covid-19.
“I think what [all this] illustrates is the depth of the problem we’re facing with climate change,” said Pennycook of the University of Regina. “If we can’t get bipartisan agreement on a global pandemic that’s presently spreading, it’s making me less optimistic that we’ll ever see any change on people’s attitudes toward climate change until it’s too late.”
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