You might have thought that a global pandemic would produce a sense of unity in a nation state. In theory, there is little that is more unifying than the sense that a country is battling together to try to get through a crisis that is not of its own making.
This has largely been borne out across the world. For better or worse, countries such as Britain and France have been relatively united around their political leaders. Any perceived failures have largely been forgiven thanks to the sense that they were doing their best under difficult circumstances. There were even strange moments of forced unity: in the case of the UK, there was weekly applause for the NHS.
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The only country in which this was not the case was the United States. From the start of the virus, the pandemic became as highly politicised as everything else. Aware that a roaring economy was one of the central pillars of his return to office, President Trump was unwilling from the start to respond drastically. He was, perhaps, the world’s most reluctant leader to concede to lockdowns or mask-wearing — and, as a consequence, both of these issues fell, like everything else, along entirely partisan lines.
Many who hated Trump became dedicated to mask-wearing precisely because the President was not. Single, double, or triple mask-wearing — even when engaged in an activity like jogging — suddenly became an even better way of displaying your political sympathies than wearing a “Biden-Harris” t-shirt.
Likewise, the rejection of mask-wearing and an opposition to lockdowns became the mark of a Republican with a strong Trumpist sensibility. During a visit to the States ahead of the election I was struck by how New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and other Democrat cities were filled with mask-wearing lockdown enthusiasts. Towns in Florida, by contrast, resembled party destinations in an especially frenetic holiday-season.
There was a feeling throughout all this that the cause resided in the White House. Once Trump was gone, so the argument went, so the obscene divisiveness of American politics would recede and there might at least be some unified narrative on Covid and the national response to it.
Unsurprisingly, this did not happen. Trump may be long gone, but the polarisation of America’s pandemic politics remains. Vaccine hesitancy, in particular, has become an issue that divides the Left and Right. For example, one poll carried out last month found that while 86% of Democrats had received at least one Covid jab, while only 45% of Republicans had — and while a mere 6% of Democrats said that they would most likely avoid being vaccinated an extraordinary 47% of Republicans said the same.
It isn’t quite analogous to compare this situation with Labour and Conservative voters in the UK; this is clearly more than a political dispute. But even if you transpose the Democrat-Republican vaccine divide on to the most divisive British counterpart argument of recent years —Brexit — the divide is less pronounced. A poll carried out by YouGov in April found that vaccine hesitancy in the UK saw only a five-point difference between people who had voted Remain and those who had voted Leave.
There are a range of possible explanations for this. The first is that the UK’s Brexit divisions have begun to heal, if not completely. People who voted Remain have, by and large, accepted the new reality and do not in large numbers believe that they can continue to overturn the 2016 vote.
In America, by contrast, more than half of Republican voters still believe that Trump won the last Presidential election and that the Democrats stole the vote. Around three in ten Republican voters believe that Trump will be reinstated as President this year. In other words, they believe the election was stolen, but that the facts are going to come out, forcing Biden to step aside.
And yet it is not only about politics. From the start of the pandemic, it was striking that reactions to the pandemic in America fell across a quasi-philosophical line. Most Americans have lived all their lives better acquainted with the concept of risk than their British and European counterparts. In part this is because of the absence of the European-style model of the welfare state. In Europe, life’s game of snakes and ladders exists in a much more sanitised form. But in the US, the reality is far more extreme.
The American Right’s suspicion of the state and state agencies remains more pronounced than it is on the European right. Ever since the British and European Right made their peace with the welfare state, there have been those who have wished to reduce the size of it, but no significant figure who has wished to abolish it. The same cannot be said for the US.
Ultimately, political polarisation has become a way of life, one that is more than capable of surviving the rotation of Presidents. Indeed, as a phenomenon I suspect it will only become more pronounced. At the end of last month, the CDC advised all Americans, including people who are fully vaccinated, to once again wear masks in a number of scenarios. And this week, more than a dozen large US corporations, including Walmart, Google and United Airlines, announced that their workers would be expected to demonstrate that they have had the vaccine in order to work for them.
So off the American cultural divide goes again. America may have survived the worst of the pandemic — but the deep divisions which it has highlighted look increasingly irreparable.
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