In recent decades, the glue binding America has come undone, as political polarization has reached record levels and trust in national institutions has crumbled. Could the fight against the coronavirus forge America, once more, into a unified nation, or will the terrifying global trauma become just another front in the partisan war? The latter seems far more likely.
People across the United States face a common enemy, which doesn’t distinguish between red America and blue America. The pandemic has inspired incredible acts of generosity and courage, not least from health-care workers who persevere in the face of danger and exhaustion. In the last line of his novel The Plague, Albert Camus wrote that the titular disease arose “for the bane and the enlightening of men.” The coronavirus could enlighten Americans by revealing the deep interconnections of society and creating an era of public investment, including new policies such as paid sick leave.
But even the coronavirus can’t seem to overcome polarization. Polls measuring approval of Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis show Americans about evenly split on the president’s performance. Meanwhile, Trump’s overall approval numbers have barely budged since the start of the year, remaining in a narrow band of 42 percent to 44 percent. Even threat perception is deeply divided along partisan lines: Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to see the coronavirus as a grave danger. Nearly twice as many Republicans (30 percent) as Democrats (16 percent) believe in the conspiracy theory that the virus was deliberately created in a lab. This partisan gap on public-health issues is nothing new: Democrats were more supportive than Republicans of Barack Obama’s handling of the H1N1 virus in 2009 and the Ebola outbreak in 2014. At the elite level, there’s no coronavirus ceasefire; instead, the politics, have, if anything, become more furious, as Congress squabbles over a stimulus and Trump continues his feuds with journalists and governors.