Six decades ago, the democratic socialist Michael Harrington introduced into the American political lexicon the phrase “The Other America” with a book of that title that profoundly disturbed John F. Kennedy and that motivated Lyndon B. Johnson to create his “war on poverty.” In 1968, Martin Luther King spoke of the “two Americas” in a speech a month before his death. Sixteen years later, Governor Mario M. Cuomo borrowed the theme in a rousing Democratic convention speech. And in 2008, Senator John Edwards mobilized the “two Americas” phrase as the leitmotif of his presidential campaign. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation has employed the locution.
And yet none of them could have imagined the two Americas that took their form in the election of Donald J. Trump and the response to the coronavirus pandemic that, together, have roiled political and civic life in the United States, challenged the authority of scientists and medical experts and created or reinforced a culture of contention that pervades nearly every aspect of American daily commerce and communications.
Those divisions – now so commonplace that they seem unremarkable, which is perhaps the most remarkable element of all – have spilled beyond the ballot box into the hospital ward.
A Pew Research Center study this month found that nearly nine in 10 Democrats have received at least one vaccine, while only six in 10 Republicans have been jabbed. Only slightly more than half of conservative Republicans have had at least one shot. The usual American divide – race – doesn’t apply to the vaccine; both Black and white Americans have been vaccinated at about a 70 per cent rate.
“That is a very good thing,” said Linnea Warren May, a policy researcher specializing in health equity with the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank. “Data about vaccines are often sketchy, but moving toward equity across a number of domains is always a positive, and especially when it comes to the vaccine in this period.’’
The notion that “you are what you eat” emerged in 1942 with the publication of a book of that title. While that remains true today, a new corollary has emerged: You are how you voted in 2020.
Indeed, state vaccination rates broadly are reversely proportional to the percentage of the vote that Mr. Trump won in the presidential election, according to figures assembled by The New York Times and independent health researchers. Wyoming (70 per cent for Mr. Trump) and West Virginia (69 per cent), for example, provided Mr. Trump with his highest pluralities. They also are the two states with the lowest vaccination rates. The state with the highest COVID death rate is Alabama, which provided Mr. Trump with his fourth-highest plurality (63.1 per cent).
Independent health analyst Charles Gaba, stripping away low-population counties, found that the virus case rates since midyear are nearly three times greater in states with the highest Trump numbers than they are in the states with the lowest Trump results.
At the same time – and reflecting predominantly similar divisions – scholars at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats have found that nearly a tenth of Americans believe both that the 2020 election “was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president” and that the use of force “is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.” About a fifth of Americans agree with one of those notions.
The poll concluded that “many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization.” A third of them own a gun and one in seven have served in the armed forces and thus have firearms skills, with more than a third of them saying they back militia and extremist groups. The caveat in the group’s report, published this week on the online academic network The Conversation, is not especially comforting.
“Only a small percentage of people who hold extremist views ever actually commit acts of violence, but our findings reveal how many Americans hold views that could turn them toward insurrection,” writes University of Chicago political science professor Robert A. Pape.
Even so, those views have deep roots in the American character.
They emerge most noticeably in a 1787 letter that Thomas Jefferson – once a crisp knee-breech revolutionary who drafted the Declaration of Independence, later the plutocratic third president – wrote to William Smith, the son-in law of second president John Adams. Mr. Jefferson, then the United States’ minister to France, argued that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” adding that bloodshed was the “natural manure” of politics.
Other divisions persist in American life. Mr. Edwards’ characterization of two Americas – ”the America of the privileged and the wealthy, and the America of those who lived from paycheck to paycheck” – is likely one of the inflection points that contributes to the bitterness pervading not only American politics, but also everyday life in the country.
Moreover, the 1968 description of the “other America” that the Reverend King remarked upon at Grosse Pointe High School, the wealthiest community in Michigan, also persists, with its “daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”
During what future historians may come to describe as “the time of the coronavirus,” the buoyancy of hope growing out of the effect of the vaccines swiftly turned into the fatigue of despair, in large measure because of the divisions over whether to accept the vaccines – the very medical answers to the virus that were produced as part of the warp-speed effort set in motion by Mr. Trump himself. It stands as a perfect example of how in acrimony there often is irony.
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