America’s Blue and Red Tribes Aren’t So Far Apart

The culture war over vaccination would be less dire if the two sides understood their similarities.

A fencing match between a blue and a red competitor, with syringes as the swords
The Print Collector / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Large swaths of America’s vaccinated masses—along with elites in the White House, boardrooms, public schools, hospitals, and the mainstream media—are feeling frustrated with their unvaccinated neighbors. And understandably so. COVID-19 vaccines offer stellar protection against hospitalization and death. I despair that many thousands more unvaccinated Americans will die needlessly, that overcrowded hospitals will keep struggling to treat people with other medical emergencies, and that continuing spread of the coronavirus puts vulnerable people such as my grandparents at greater risk of contracting a breakthrough infection.

But I also worry about the enmity I see between vaccine proponents and vaccine skeptics, especially when it’s directed not within America’s red tribe or blue tribe but across the growing chasm that divides these polarized factions. Even before the pandemic, the right and the left were defining themselves far too much through negative partisanship—that is, their disdain for the other side. So this is a perilous moment to confront an urgent new dispute that implicates life, death, bodily autonomy, freedom of movement, and the ability to get or keep a job in many fields.

Although vaccine hesitancy exists on both the left and the right, the partisan gulf is undeniable: Pew Research Center found last month that 86 percent of Democratic voters but just 60 percent of Republican voters had received at least one shot. As David Leonhardt of The New York Times observes, almost every blue state now has a higher vaccination rate than almost every red state. And COVID-19 deaths—which, in the early days of the pandemic, occurred disproportionately in liberal metro areas—are now likelier in red counties. Put simply, blue America’s higher vaccination rates are saving lives on a mass scale, while red America’s vaccine skepticism is yielding preventable mass death. Despite the high stakes, neither side should lash out at the other, precisely because these differences roughly correspond with culture-war divides. Contempt makes members of out-groups less likely to change their mind while raising the odds of factional violence.

What’s more, the differences between red and blue America on vaccines are easy to overstate, and not just because many members of both tribes are still unvaccinated. The vaccine divide is rooted in different habits of mind, different relationships to institutions and authority, and different approaches to truth-seeking and sense-making. And far from polarizing along each of those dimensions, the red tribe and the blue tribe are both internally split on all of them. By now, readers of mainstream news sources are familiar with anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiment in red America, even among people whose age or health status puts them at high risk from the coronavirus. But we spend little time reflecting on how the two tribes think alike, and the side of the culture war that favors mass vaccination—as I do—should engage in introspection too.

Others have noticed that America’s pandemic politics is messier than is commonly acknowledged. In the essays “The Extremely Weird Politics of Covid” and “The Coronavirus and the Conservative Mind,” Ross Douthat of the Times astutely wrote that America’s rival culture-war factions repeatedly reacted to COVID-19 in ways that reversed the roles many observers expected.

Before 2020, the idea of President Donald Trump running the executive branch during a global pandemic would have filled many Democrats—as well as me—with fears of authoritarian overreactions and excesses. During a 2014 Ebola outbreak that killed just two Americans, Trump posted scores of panicked tweets, urging the shutdown of flights from West Africa and calling for President Barack Obama to resign. “Something very important, and indeed society changing, may come out of the Ebola epidemic that will be a very good thing,” he wrote. “NO SHAKING HANDS!” What would the famous germophobe and his base of purity-focused, openly xenophobic supporters do if a foreign pathogen was killing hundreds or thousands in the United States?

As it turned out, Trump was too slow to shut down travel, too careless to avoid hosting super-spreader events, and too quick to declare victory over the coronavirus, predicting the pandemic would end by Easter 2020. And as Douthat observed, “Liberals have swung against any acknowledgment of what until very recently seemed like a core left perspective—that stringent public health responses are inherently authoritarian and inevitably ratify various forms of inequality and social control.”

There are many illustrations of these shifts. The ACLU argued during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 that forcing workers to choose between getting a jab or losing their job “is coercive, invasive and unjustifiably intrudes upon their fundamental rights,” but now supports COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

When New Yorkers were first becoming concerned about the virus spreading in Wuhan, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his underlings urged city residents to visit Chinatown. “There is no reason to avoid public settings, including subways and—most of all—our city’s famous Chinese restaurants and small businesses,” NYC Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said in a city-hall press release. “While it is understandable for some New Yorkers to feel concerned about the novel coronavirus situation, we cannot stand for racist and stigmatizing rhetoric, or for myths and half-truths about the virus.” De Blasio wound up requiring vaccination for various indoor activities. Now he has mandated vaccines for teachers and is considering expanding the requirement to encompass the city’s police officers and firefighters.

Changing your mind is sometimes prudent as new information emerges. But however the left came to accept travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and mandates, Douthat posited, “the bare acknowledgment that this weird flip took place might help a little with our polarization—tempering the liberal sense that the right is just a pro-Covid death cult and the right’s sense that the left wants us all to mask up and eat Soylent in our disease-free habitats forever.”

In that spirit, I want to focus on vaccination in particular. At its most self-congratulatory, the blue tribe’s self-conception on this issue is best summed up by a line from that iconic progressive lawn sign: In this house we believe … science is real. You may know the allusion to the lyrics of “Science Is Real” by the indie band They Might Be Giants:

A scientific theory

Isn’t just a hunch or guess

It’s more like a question

That’s been put through a lot of tests

And when a theory emerges

Consistent with the facts

The proof is with science

The truth is with science

Science is real

But what does it mean to invoke that slogan during this pandemic? Does it mean letting scientists dictate policy? If so, which scientists? Or perhaps it means listening to scientific authorities at agencies such as the FDA, the CDC, and the World Health Organization? Yet even as the pandemic rages, significant factions in public health, academia, media, and other institutions where most people lean to the left have urged fellow citizens to be skeptical of authority and to judge policy recommendations by political and philosophical yardsticks as well as just scientific ones.

If the blue establishment had consistently touted deference to scientific institutions, then blue-tribe contempt for red America’s non-scientific anxieties and mistrust of authority would be consistent. Since December 2020, when the FDA granted its first emergency-use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine, the blue establishment has indeed been close to unanimous in urging Americans to trust its recommendation, deferring to its expertise, professionalism, and processes.

Just two months earlier, however, public-health experts at The New England Journal of Medicine editorialized as follows in a blistering October 2020 critique of public-health agencies under Trump:

The Food and Drug Administration has been shamefully politicized, appearing to respond to pressure from the administration rather than scientific evidence. Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government, causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, the MSNBC host Joy Reid, and many other progressives expressed doubts about whether they would trust any vaccine approved by the FDA before the 2020 election. Biden’s victory didn’t change the data before the FDA, nor did it produce an immediate turnover in agency staff. Since then, no one has cast substantive doubt on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, which have rolled out all over the world, or the FDA’s review of them, which was competent. But this contrast—between the early fearmongering and the blue establishment’s strongly pro-vaccine stance now—shows that questioning public-health authorities is not inherently contemptible.

Even as many liberals take pride in championing the scientific method, other significant factions in blue America demand different approaches––for example, analyzing the world through the lens of identity or power differentials and judging pandemic policies based not only on their immediate effects on morbidity and mortality, but on whether they deem them “anti-racist.”

After George Floyd’s death, more than 1,200 public-health workers signed a letter endorsing protests against racism and police violence but not protests against stay-at-home orders. At educational institutions and corporations, some of the suddenly ubiquitous training sessions that purport to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion teach, per the claims of the activist Tema Okun, that believing in objective decision making is a form of “white-supremacy culture.” “Assume,” she advises, “that everybody has a valid point.” The Urban Institute, a major Washington, D.C., think tank that touts itself as “the trusted source for unbiased, authoritative insights that inform consequential choices about the well-being of people and places,” recently published a staffer’s assertion that objectivity and rigor are “harmful research practices.” The writer added that researchers often define rigor as following protocol meticulously “instead of ensuring data are contextualized and grounded in community experience.”

My point isn’t to wholly endorse or reject any particular orientation. I happen to agree with the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker that rationality is presently underrated, not overrated. I also believe Lisa Fitzpatrick, an infectious-disease expert whom I interviewed late last year, when she describes how communicating with underserved communities is undervalued in public-health circles. Fitzpatrick is Black, and she has important insight into why racial representation in public-health agencies is vital.

Many of blue America’s favored slogans—including both “Science is real” and “Listen to women of color”tend to elide something that most people on the left and right grasp intuitively: No bromide can relieve us of the need to think critically, balance competing insights, and render prudent judgments. Some of what institutions say is trustworthy, and some of it is not. Some public-health experts are scrupulous truth tellers while others use the language of science to mask their racial bias or political agenda. What activists call “lived experiences” have a place in public discourse, but should not be elevated or amplified when contradicted by rigorous, objective data. The rapper Nicki Minaj recently spread an alarmist claim about a vaccine side effect that her cousin’s friend supposedly suffered. It was both uncorroborated and inconsistent with any reliable account of even rare vaccine side effects.

The fight over vaccines is likely to rage on. The stakes are too high, pandemic emotions are too raw, and the issues of bodily autonomy are too sensitive for the issue to abate. But the fact that two people are on opposite sides of the vaccine divide does not necessarily or typically mean they are at odds about core values or even about the habits of mind that a responsible person ought to marshal. As MIT researchers discovered after a massive study of social-media users, people from opposite sides in the culture war are sometimes diligently probing the very same data and earnestly reaching different conclusions. Other times, when engaged in nonscientific thinking, someone in the blue tribe might be involved in alternative habits of mind that, in other circumstances, would typically be associated with the red tribe—or vice versa. These convergences don’t lower the stakes. But they should lower the temperature.