With each passing day in COVID-19-ravaged America one thing is becoming increasingly clear: The pandemic is political.
The divisions on how dramatically to curtail movement while the coronavirus threat still rages, whether to wear masks, how strictly to enforce physical distancing and when to open up the country economically fall squarely on partisan lines.
Indeed, President Donald Trump underlined the political nature of COVID-19 when, in a tweet this week, he accused his rivals here in Pennsylvania of politicizing the pandemic: “The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails. The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don’t play politics. Be safe, move quickly!”
At the same time, vital questions about how to respond to the virus in the U.S. have been distilled into twin debates, one over the role of government in a civil society and the other over the presence of government spending in the economy. Only a third of Democrats believe Washington will spend too much money responding to the virus, for example, while three out of five Republicans feel that way, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll.
“This is a political struggle,’’ Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor of the history of science, said in an interview. “President Trump resisted taking on the virus back in January because his base didn’t want the government to step in to do things or to intervene in the marketplace. It’s the reason that conservatives don’t want to attack climate change either. And some of the language is the same – a ‘hoax.’”
Moreover, the national conversation on the balance between public health and the economy – a classic debate from the time of the Black Death of 1347 to the movie Jaws of 1975 to the struggles on Capitol Hill of 2020 – is a mirror of the divisions between Republicans and Democrats and between Mr. Trump’s supporters and his detractors.
Half of those who identify themselves as core supporters of the President believe the United States is taking too long to return to normal business hours and practices, according to the Journal/NBC poll. More dramatic still: only about one in five of Mr. Trump’s core opponents feel that way.
Seven of the eight states that require people to wear masks in public voted for Hillary Clinton four years ago. The lone Trump state requiring masks, Pennsylvania, has a Democratic governor and six of the last seven public-opinion polls taken here give presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden the lead, with the seventh showing a tie between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump.
In addition, the extent to which China should be blamed for the origin and extension of the virus reflects Americans’ views of Mr. Trump, who from the start of his 2016 presidential campaign blamed China for American trade imbalances and for the emergence of the notion that climate change is a threat to humankind.
American progressives, especially former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, have employed the health crisis as a bludgeon to win universal heath insurance. “We must finally do what every other major country does,’’ he said in a CNN commentary, “and guarantee health care to all our people as a human right, not a privilege.’’
At the same time, conservatives have used COVID-19 as part of their political pugilism as well.
“The goal here is to remake America into a progressive society, supposedly a more equitable society," conservative radio host Laura Ingraham said. “Now, let’s face it, these people, a lot of them at least, didn’t like the old normal. Why? Because in the old normal, the people elected Donald Trump.”
The stakes go beyond Mr. Trump’s re-election prospects. Republicans, who hold a slim 53-47 majority in the Senate – the two Independents caucus with the Democrats – must defend 23 of the 35 seats being contested in November, when all 435 seats in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives are up for grabs.
Poll results support the political nature of the pandemic. White voters without a college degree provided Mr. Trump with a 39-point advantage in the 2016 election. Men provided Mr. Trump with a 12-point advantage in that contest. In polling this spring, men without college degrees say they are far more eager to open up businesses than women with college degrees.
The next frontier in the political struggle almost certainly will be death tolls.
Conservatives believe that overcautious medical personnel and liberals are inflating the number of deaths as a way of providing tools for big government to regulate private behaviour – a notion reflected in the rallies outside state capitols in, among other places, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maine, all regarded as swing states in the fall election.
The undertone: Liberals have a stake in a high death toll as a way to curtail the economic recovery that the Trump campaign wants for the election season – and as a tool to argue that the President has failed to provide the leadership required to protect public health. The second paragraph of the white paper on the virus produced by the Biden campaign speaks of “a decisive public health response.’’
Come November – and the most consequential presidential election in modern history – the pandemic will no doubt still be political.
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