Political Polarization Turns Deadly


March 17, 2020, Mount Horeb, WI

I've written to the editor of the Mount Horeb Mail and established Mount Horeb Community Forums in reaction to my concerns about the dangers of political polarization to our democracy and civic society. Recent events have made clear that I underestimated the danger. We can now see that political polarization will have deadly consequences.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted daily life like nothing we have ever seen. Yet despite the potential death toll, the closing of schools and the cancellation of virtually all events, one's level of concern about the threat turns out to be largely determined by one's political convictions.

In fact, a Quinnipiac poll from last week showed that 68% of Democrats were very or somewhat concerned about coronavirus infection, while only 35% of Republicans were concerned. The same numbers were found in a Survey Monkey/Axios poll.

How can it be that political identification can so strongly color one's view of an obvious public health threat? In the case of the coronavirus, clearly President Trump's weeks of repeated minimizing of the threat has much to do with this

Perhaps equally important to how people have received and processed information about coronavirus is the media ecosystem one inhabits, which in our polarized political culture is largely determined by your political tribe.

The chart above illustrates something well known to most observers; Fox News is the main news source of Republicans and those that lean Republican. Democrats essentially don't watch Fox, but rather have viewing habits spread across a number of networks, watching what many of the most partisan members of the right (and left) derisively refer to as the "mainstream media."

While Fox's actual news organization generally operates according to journalistic standards and norms, Fox's prime time opinion shows are consciously aligned with the views of President Trump. So while Trump repeatedly tried to minimize the danger of coronavirus up until the indisputable facts on the ground made it impossible to do so, some Fox hosts played along, amplifying Trump's messaging and even casting the virus as a political ruse designed to take down the president. 

In recent days, as Trump realized he was in political trouble due to the slow response of his administration, he has struck a different tone. So to have the talking heads at Fox.

Others, including Sean Hannity, the prime time Fox star with the most-watched news show on television suggested on his Twitter feed as late as last Saturday that the coronavirus situation was a liberal media conspiracy.

Beyond Fox, popular conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly scoffed at and trivialized coronavirus warnings while also claiming that it is a liberal conspiracy designed to "take down Trump."

On the outer fringes of the conservative media ecosystem, but close to home, former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who spoke at the 2016 Republican Convention and was being considered by President Trump for a position in the administration, posted unhinged rants on Twitter about coronavirus, even as the crises was forcing the state and local governments to take dramatic action in response to Trump administration inaction.

Given the messaging from the President and his media backers, is it surprising that people who identify as Republicans have been half as concerned as Democrats about the threat of coronavirus? If there was ever a time to get out of your comfortable media bubble -- conservative or liberal -- and see what the other side is saying, it is now.

While with some issues political polarization means legislative gridlock and a frustrating lack of progress on important civic matters, in our current moment, with coronavirus infections and deaths poised to increase exponentially in the coming weeks, the cost of political polarization will soon be higher than we could've ever imagined. 

The outcome of this crisis is unknown, but I'm hopeful that one outcome will be to unite the country and break the fever of polarization.

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