Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington is a political scientist, policy analyst, and writer living in Los Angeles. He has extensively researched the red-blue divide in American party politics by focusing on county level census and voting data. He blogs at www.casinocap.wordpress.com and www.tukaglobal.com.

Red Virus Blue

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The global coronavirus pandemic has consumed the news cycle for the past several months and quarantined us in our homes. (Most recently subsumed by the George Floyd tragedy and subsequent protests and civil unrest. We’ll weave how race plays into this analysis with an addendum.) I suppose the lockdowns have given us all some time to reflect and think on some things. Not surprisingly, the crises have divided our politics and media along familiar lines, despite all the admonishments that a biological pathogen doesn’t politically discriminate. Three months in and we now have red vs. blue viewpoints on the interpretation of uncertain data generated by speculative models, the divergence of expert opinions, on necessary mitigation policies, the costs and benefits of economic lockdowns, what is an essential business, and even what to call the pandemic. Several commentators have opined that, instead of unifying us against a common threat, the pandemic has only intensified the ideological culture war that characterizes our dysfunctional politics.

I have long maintained that the subcultural wars are actually a proxy for several true fault lines in American society. Primary is the divergence between urban and rural/suburban political interests. This geographic divide coincides with lifestyle choices and associated household patterns, most typically the difference between two-person married households vs. single and female heads of household. As we know, single urbanites overwhelmingly vote Blue, while rural and suburban marrieds tend to vote Red.

Because the coronavirus transmits through human contact and proximity, it tends to spread fastest through densely populated communities that define urban areas. A recent study by the Heartland Institute shows the prime determinants of high rates of infection are population density, percentage of foreign residents, age, hubs for global supply chains, and reliance on the tourist and hospitality industries. These determinants converge in cities all over the globe and reveal the highest concentration of infectious cases. For example, New York City, as of April 16,  had accounted for 37 percent of all US deaths. In contrast, rural and suburban areas offer more spaced housing and shopping areas, private transportation, and far less casual human contact with strangers.

It should be obvious that strategies for social distancing differ significantly among cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Although rural communities can be hit hard, the contagion is much more acute in dense urban areas. This helps explain why policy preferences on mitigation differ and coincide roughly with our Red-Blue voting patterns.

The second fault line that has been brought into relief by the pandemic is the ideological divide between centralized top-down government hierarchies and decentralized bottom-up control networks. This has been a persistent tension in modern American politics ever since the Great Depression and the New Deal. Liberals and progressives believe in the efficacy of centralized governing institutions at the national level to guide policy. On the other hand, conservatives and libertarians put their faith in bottom-up, decentralized solutions that provide greater flexibility for adaptation with greater tolerance for smaller mistakes.

This predilection for top-down or bottom-up defines for each side the nature of expertise they seek for good governance. Those on the Left mostly cite the complexity of governing a large and populous country to justify a professional political class and technocracy with broad authority. Those on the Right cite the same expansiveness and complexity to argue for decentralized expertise based largely on practical experience within one’s skillset rather than theoretical knowledge. Authority in the latter view is much more constrained. The divide coincides with education in human capital vs. lived real-world experience. It’s the Ivy League vs. the School of Hard Knocks.

One challenge that arises for both sides is the sheer quantity and breadth of knowledge needed to fully understand any large, complex system. For progressives, this justifies the hierarchy of expertise for more informed decision-making, but Reds will argue for the decentralization of control to isolate problems and minimize the risks of error under uncertainty. It should be noted that the government response demanded during this pandemic has greatly expanded the role of government in our society, financially and socially. There will be repercussions.

Lastly, there is a distinct class divide on the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus. The quarantine policies have led to a direct breakdown in economic exchange with carryover effects to incomes and economic well-being. The asset-rich have experienced paper losses that will likely be mitigated by national financial policy, while their level of savings provides a self-insured safety net. However, wage earners, small businesses, and those without savings may not even survive until the government rescue funds arrive. Considering the disruption, it is almost sure that these funds will prove to be only a stopgap. In addition, people invested in human capital find it easier to work remotely, whereas workers providing necessary goods and services usually must show up in real time. Thus, the threat of the virus and its economic costs are not evenly borne across the population, causing political interests over its management to diverge.

Sadly, some political responses have tried to harness the crisis to settle old scores, such as gun control or anti-abortion laws, or to reignite partisan sniping. Congress, for its part, stuffed the $2 trillion relief bill with a smorgasbord of pork barrel spending. Are we destined to drive ourselves farther apart with this pandemic threat, to retreat to our comfortable Red vs. Blue identities? One would hope not, because not being smart about our responses to the threat will most certainly cost us all dearly.

The coronavirus has vexed us, and most societies, with some serious near-term health risks. In addition, the psychological effects are often overlooked and can lead to unexpected consequences. Faced with a likely existential threat, studies show that people take more risks than would be rational in the absence of that threat. We see this in those apocalyptic movies, when widespread hysteria and panic leads to chaos and deadly conflict, where more people die from the chaos than from the threat. A national media that thrives on sensationalism only amplifies these psychological effects.

Given the uncertainty and paucity of the medical evidence in real time means we need to weigh medical expertise with behavioral and social science expertise. Political management depends on this balance because a medical bias toward worst-case scenarios that fail to materialize will only discredit future warnings. One must also appreciate the dire consequences of a prolonged economic crisis in terms of devastated lives and livelihoods. If people sense that the economic risks outweigh the health risks, a coordinated strategy will fall apart.

A decentralized but coordinated response can allow divergent paths to converge on success. Such a strategy also provides more information feedback on what works and what doesn’t, while isolating and minimizing losses. Risk diversification also fosters the pooling of outcomes so that successes can shore up failures. We are interdependent and urban centers need the supply channels from the periphery to continue to produce and deliver or they will suffer from shortages of essential goods.

A convergence of diverse interests is democracy in action. The decentralized approach is also reinforced by federalism: Each of the fifty state governors can assess conditions on the ground on a state basis and then provide guidance for interstate commerce and people migration. Some have argued that a virus knows no borders, so we need a universal strategy. But this is not quite accurate: the virus travels with human hosts and it’s those people who migrate and spread the virus across borders. We are discovering a new appreciation for nationalism and federalism.

Lockdown policies should differ between urban metropolises and rural counties. Cities with high concentrations of infections should have stricter stay-at-home policies and migration in and out of hot zones should be more controlled with stay-in-place policies. Laxity, with city residents fleeing to country homes, has merely brought the virus to smaller communities that lack the healthcare infrastructure to manage uncontrolled outbreaks. The same applies to international mobility for business and tourism.   

Medical data on the coronavirus shows that the elderly and those with preexisting conditions are most at risk, along with healthcare workers who are more frequently exposed. But the healthy young are more at risk from an economic crisis with the collapse of incomes and social institutions that serve them. We need to manage the balance among these demographic cohorts by ensuring we have the resources to do so. Our common goal is to diminish the infectious rate by pursuing strategies that make sense for a given demographic.

At the same time, safer communities need to relax the quarantine guidelines sooner than at-risk communities. Policymakers and the public are rightly concerned about the sustainability of small and medium-size businesses. They account for roughly 52% of U.S. GDP growth and created nearly 70% of all new jobs during the previous economic expansion.

Not surprisingly, as I write this, battle lines are forming over lockdown vs. opening up strategies, as we struggle to balance health safety and economic well-being. These battles are forming along urban vs. rural polarization lines, but the political differences are probably driven less by partisanship and more by different political risk incentives. The downside risk of a localized health crisis causes governors and mayors to prefer to err on the side of caution regarding lockdowns, while they will likely assume less blame for the macroeconomic effects, at least in the near term.

President Trump and his administration face a longer-term macro threat to the national economy, which also happens to be felt directly by individual citizens experiencing the immediate financial pain. As the economic effects become more acute, the political incentives will shift toward ending the lockdowns regardless of medical warnings. Partisan squabbling and gross media bias will only make smart trade-offs much harder to manage and will not reflect well on the political class.

Unfortunately, in the midst of the presidential campaign season we can probably expect this conflict to grow more heated as it amplifies our partisan divides. Previous research suggests conflict will mostly reflect how different incidences of health and financial risks affect different people. Those more exposed to health risks than financial losses will opt for stricter and more extended lockdown policies, while those more exposed to economic ruin will choose to assume the health risks of opening up. The challenge is that both risks are somewhat systemic and thus the consequences are spread across the entire population. It will take clearheaded thinking to reconcile these opposing tensions.

By the time you read this, new developments will have probably unfolded (and this brings us to the racial unrest), but the longer-term consequences of this pandemic will not likely be different from such contagions of the past. On a much deeper level, we will have the opportunity to face the existential meaning of how we live and govern ourselves, especially in terms of empowering individual freedom in the service of greater shared security. We will grapple with the size, scope, and centralization of government that has exploded in response to the pandemic. For example, what happens when the source of all new demand comes from government subsidies while production and supply have collapsed? Where will we impose taxes to service the new debt levels?

We will have to figure out the best ways to adapt to change by making smart trade-offs. And we will have to tackle these issues within the existing structure of the democratic nation-state to manage migration patterns and border controls.

We will have to continue to wrestle with moral philosophy and ethical social values, and this is where racial tensions enter the analysis. Unfortunately, how race relations interact with the pandemic presents a maze of interactions with no clear interpretation. Black Americans, especially those in the underclass, have been disproportionately affected by the virus pandemic. Their health risks and fatality rates are higher, with related factors of healthcare access and health fitness. Racial minorities suffer much higher incarceration rates where prisons have been hot spots for infections and fatalities. They also face greater economic challenges from the economic lockdowns. The urban poor depend more on employment and public transportation. Their children depend more on public education with lunch programs where now they may lack access to quality distance learning. Minority businesses have higher hurdles for access to investment capital or bridge loans while lower income families have less savings and financial assets to tide them over during a financial crunch.

How these factors may have contributed to the present civil unrest is complex and unclear. As explained above, preferences concerning pandemic policy are usually bifurcated by how the health and economic impacts are felt. Have the urban poor suffered more from the health risks or the economic collapse? Just a few months ago black unemployment was at historic lows, now job losses have skyrocketed with the lockdown. Unemployment leads to idleness, financial stress, and despair that can be compounded by drug and alcohol abuse together with social isolation. Public schools across the nation were shut down early and there is talk of not opening in the fall. The fact that poor minorities have suffered more while others have benefitted from their economic advantages certainly drives resentment. But conflict between law enforcement and black males, sometimes with disastrous consequences, is only the tip of the spear of the long-standing failure of our politics to address economic and social issues that drive these racial wedges. Public education, access to healthcare, business access to capital, economic opportunity, asset ownership, incarceration rates, unequal justice and policing policies…the list is long.

These events – a viral pandemic and contagious civil unrest – present enormous challenges; it means we will have to raise our game to meet them. To do so it behooves us to be smart and less tribal about our politics. And better to be united than not, if we can.

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3 thoughts on “Red Virus Blue”

  1. Erica Etelson

    I agree that reopening policies are best promulgated at the local level. At the same time, I think the federal govt has erred in not establishing some kind of baseline that would prevent reckless local decisionmakers from putting their residents at risk –eg. the fed gov could have said, “State and local authorities are free to begin reopening as soon as there are fewer than X deaths per capita for a 2-week period and the ability to contact trace 80% of cases.”

    The second concern I have is that decisionmakers at any level of gov (state,local, fed) may be listening to some residents’ concerns more than others? Are nursing home residents being heard? Health care and grocery workers? Restaurant and retail employees? Small business owners? The times call for robust citizen engagement in the promulgation of sensible reopening and masking policies.

    My third concern is that, as the author mentions, information about the pandemic and efficacy of various public health interventions has become polarized. If we’re all operating on the basis of different information, how can we possibly form a consensus around what to do to curb the pandemic?

    And lastly and maybe most importantly, the polarization that plagues us is undermining people’s willingness to take actions for the greater good. In a non-polarized country, I don’t think most people would hesitate to wear a face mask, even though it’s a pain in the neck, in order to protect their fellow citizens. (New evidence is showing masks to be highly effective at curbing transmission). But I believe our state of polarization makes many people turn inward and focus exclusively on their personal safety and comfort. And then when the mask-wearers start shaming the mask-resisters, the polarization only deepens, and the life span of the pandemic stretches out even further for lack of an agreed-upon strategy. We’ve got a long road ahead.

  2. Michael Harrington

    Thanks, Erica,

    These are all valid concerns and good points to advance the discussion. One problem I see with any top-down coordinated strategy is the uncertainty concerning the data reporting. This has plagued the Federal spokespersons since Day One, leading to a loss of credibility and public support for top-down direction. This gets right to the point of my discussion of expertise, risk, and control and how these are seen through different ideological lenses.

    I prefer to couch these perspectives in terms of risk and reward. Behavioral theory shows that risk is far more salient than reward in determining our choices. Reward in the case of a virus strategy would be perfect public leadership from top to bottom; risk would be characterized as avoiding any catastrophic outcome from imperfect leadership. I also like to use the analogy of the Titanic – do we want to trust the expert but fallible captain to steer through the icebergs and risk going down with the ship, or jump into the many lifeboats and risk getting swamped by the seas? It’s a trade-off, no, but the risk diversification strategy is to man the lifeboats.

    This is why local control over policy can make sense to people who adopt that perspective – yes, mistakes are made, but they are limited to small mistakes that more successful outcomes can alleviate through cooperation and coordination. That really should be the role of a federal (not national) government: to provide guidance and coordination with wide latitude for decentralized decision-making. Either way, it will be an imperfect implementation. That goes for political accountability too. Democratic politics is highly imperfect (just better than all the alternatives), and responds primarily to those with political power. The ethical point is to decentralize that power by empowering the individual citizens who comprise the polity (the distribution of wealth is a big issue for democracy).

    As far as imperfect information goes, that is a given in almost all areas of life (especially medical science). I believe surviving in a free society does require a certain faculty for common sense through local knowledge. One cannot operate on macro-information coming through whatever source. The mask issue is a perfect example. Masks make sense in enclosed areas and in crowds and when dealing with high-risk people, but not outside where fresh air, exercise, and sunshine are our best allies against the virus. This is common sense that is being validated by data, whereas draconian policies make almost no sense to people. A draconian policy just gets dismissed, taking the rational one with it. I also believe we need to be careful in defining what the ‘greater good’ is. That’s kind of what democracy is about – nobody gets to define it.

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