Partisan Rancor Has Never Been So Dangerous
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Even in the era of Donald Trump, Americans might have hoped that a national emergency as grave as the coronavirus pandemic would bring the country together. It hasn’t happened. Partisan rancor is as bad as ever. As people debate how quickly to lift the current restrictions, it shows signs of getting worse.
Across the country, an unnerving political divide has opened among public officials about how to revive shuttered economies. Congress has passed much-needed relief measures, but partisanship slowed the process needlessly. One study found that no variable better predicted how Americans would respond to the virus than political affiliation; even an incipient protest movement is being propelled by ideology.
This is not just disheartening but also dangerous. It makes defeating the pandemic harder, and risks inflicting permanent damage on U.S. society. Things don’t have to be this way. If this president can’t or won’t rise to the challenge, the country’s other leaders should strive to put matters right.
The U.S. is debating how quickly to start lifting the lockdowns. Essential as it is to minimize their economic and social costs, a wholesale lifting of restrictions would be premature. The pandemic isn’t yet under control. Easing too much and too soon could allow a second wave of infections, perhaps worse than the first (as happened in 1918). That would mean more deaths, more lockdowns and more economic damage in the end. Caution seems wise.
Patience, too. Until a vaccine is designed, proved safe and effective, and deployed at scale, this problem can’t be called solved. Flattening the curve of the infection rate relieves stress on health systems and gives scientists time to do their work, but the virus will still be capable of sickening millions if allowed to. The challenge this poses to public policy will persist for months at best, and quite possibly for years.
For as long as it lasts, people need to behave responsibly and with a measure of simple common sense. This week, Jay Timmons, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, furiously criticized protesters demanding that the lockdowns be lifted: “These people are standing so close together without any protection — with children, for God’s sakes.” Timmons is aware of what the lockdowns are costing the companies he represents. He is mindful of the sacrifices workers are making to get food and other essential goods to the American people. Protests where people put themselves and others at risk are counterproductive, and worse. This shouldn’t need saying.
Threading the needle on policy won’t be easy — but discussing how to do it should be possible without reckless behavior or an escalating culture war that worsens the country’s political dysfunction.
It’s important to see that greater unity does not demand total agreement. While so much remains uncertain, no such consensus is possible. Knowledge is advancing fast but, for the moment, crucial facts about the virus are unclear. How far has it spread? How many cases are asymptomatic? How lethal is it? Does infection confer immunity? When will a vaccine be ready? Science is working toward the answers, but so far they’ve proved elusive.
Similar uncertainty surrounds policies to curb transmission. Immediate suppression based on testing, contact tracing and isolation would have been best — but most countries didn’t do it, either because they couldn’t or because they chose not to. As the virus spread, stay-at-home orders followed in the U.S. and much of the world. They have slowed infections. But exactly how severe do restrictions have to be to make infections subside and then stop? That’s unclear. How much temporary and long-lasting harm will they do to the economy while they’re in place? Again, it’s too soon to be sure.
In this fog of uncertainty, full agreement isn’t possible — but good-faith disagreement is not the same as the paralyzing enmity on display. Disagreement allows productive cooperation; enmity makes it impossible. The anger that fuels the war between America’s liberals and conservatives blinds both sides to the possibility that they might be wrong in any respect. This makes it harder to see the truth as it emerges. The coronavirus emergency requires open minds. Partisan rage closes them, which makes the emergency worse.
Fully overcoming these national divides will take years. It will require expanding opportunities for those left behind, a renewed commitment to civic education and much else besides.
But building a sense of national purpose at times such as these shouldn’t be too much to ask. It demands leadership above all. With the president preoccupied with petty hostilities and his television ratings, that means the nation’s other leaders — in Congress, in states and cities, in business, in public service of all kinds — will need to step up. They should set an example and make it their mission to moderate disagreements and work together productively, even if not always amicably.
If they can do that, differences of opinion will move the country toward finding the answers, not closer to an even greater disaster.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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