We shouldn’t be able to tell someone’s political party affiliation by their level of concern about the coronavirus. In a crisis that is literally evolving by the hour, we need people in this country to stand (metaphorically) together, pay attention, and listen to the experts’ recommendations.
Let’s back up and paint a picture of just how quickly things have changed and why our full attention is so direly needed. Back in early March, at the beginning of every class, my students asked about the coronavirus. Where did I think this was headed? Was I worried? I did my best to respond to their questions honestly—but most of what I said was, “I don’t know.”
By the end of the second week, students’ concerns had escalated. They saw the rapidly changing situation and were anxious for answers I still didn’t have. By March 10, the question on everyone’s mind was whether we’d all be coming back after spring break (which was to begin the following Monday). I told them that we simply didn’t know and, more importantly, I said I thought it was unlikely that we’d know more before class met again on Thursday—that the more likely scenario was that we’d hear something over spring break. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On Thursday, March 12, I walked into that same class and told them a final in-person goodbye. The announcement had come the evening before class: we were moving online indefinitely.
The class I’m referring to is called Bigots & Snowflakes—it is a course about political polarization and communication across differences in ideologies and worldviews. While how that topic ties to our current national crisis may not be immediately obvious, with a closer look, the link becomes apparent. These differences have gotten in the way right when we need them to take a backseat. The rapidly-changing nature of the situation requires our attention and demands to be taken seriously.
Yet, getting everyone on board with that goal has been much harder than it should be. A March 13 article in the New York Times shined some light on why. Citing a Quinnipiac University poll, the author stated: “How much [coronavirus] worries you depends heavily on your personal politics—to a degree that’s not typical for a national crisis.” The article continued: “. . . roughly six in 10 Republican voters nationwide said they were not especially concerned that the coronavirus would disrupt their lives. Two-thirds of Democratic voters said the opposite.”
A March 12 CNN article stated that right-leaning Fox News misled its viewers with “top hosts and personalities on the conservative cable news network downplay[ing] concerns about the virus.” Although Fox has since changed its tune, the question of why their coverage of coronavirus appeared politicized in the first place has remained unanswered.
So, what’s going on here? Part of the Fox News response almost certainly comes from the perception that Democrats will stop at nothing to bring down Trump, even if the price is destroying the entire country. However, that answer is both unsatisfying and incomplete.
One of the major points of ideological divergence today concerns progress and how bad or good things are in our society. On the political left, the narrative that’s been put forth is one where things have not improved or have even worsened. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote in his book Enlightenment Now, “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressives’ really hate progress.” [emphasis in the original] Pinker went on to argue that:
. . .pessimism has been equated with moral seriousness. Journalists believe that by accentuating the negative, they are discharging their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers, whistleblowers, and afflicters of the comfortable. And intellectuals know they can attain instant gravitas by pointing to an unsolved problem and theorizing that it is a symptom of a sick society.
In the 2018 book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, public health expert Hans Rosling (the book was published posthumously as Rosling died in 2017) and his co-authors advised readers to think about the world as though it were a preemie in an incubator:
The baby’s health status is extremely bad, and her breathing, heart rate, and other important signs are tracked constantly so that changes for better or worse can quickly be seen. After a week, she is getting a lot better. On all the main measures, she is improving, but she still has to stay in the incubator because her health is still critical. Does it make sense to say that the infant’s situation is improving? Yes. Absolutely. Does it make sense to say it is bad? Yes, absolutely.
Rosling and his co-authors went on to make the important point that admitting things are getting better doesn’t mean saying that everything is fine. Why does this matter for the coronavirus response?
It turns out that when the emphasis is exclusively on the disastrous state of the world on issues that are subject to debate (for examples, see this article on racism or this article on sexism), some subset of the population tunes out because they simply don’t see the world that way. They don’t agree that “Racism is everywhere” or “Misogyny is everywhere” (quotes from the linked articles).
Once a perception of hyperbolic alarmism and bottomless pessimism has taken root, it’s difficult to dislodge. This has turned our national response during a true crisis into a high-stakes situation where credibility has been questioned. After all, the thinking might go, if everything is catastrophic, then nothing is. (To be fair, the tendency to dismiss as propaganda claims made by the other political side goes both ways. But in this case, we’re talking about a global pandemic.)
While it’s tempting to sit back and marvel at the willful ignorance of those unwilling to see the risks we all face, it’s worth reflecting on how we got to this point. The reasons for the differences in perceptions of racism and sexism are complex, but they stem, in part, from variation in how we think about the role of intent. The upshot is that the right views the left’s claims of pervasive racism and sexism as hyperbole because the left has come to define those terms much more broadly, a topic I’ve explored elsewhere. This more expansive definition supports a view that both -isms are ubiquitous. And, to some on the right, it sets a precedent for sounding an alarm unnecessarily.
Does this mean that, going forward, those on the left should cease to talk about the fact that there is work to be done, even a lot of work, on our most entrenched problems? Of course not. But balance is key. For conservatives, balance means a willingness to believe that sometimes things really are that bad. For liberals, balance means acknowledging the possibility of hyperbole in some claims. After all, we need everyone to listen when the message has to be unambiguous.