January 12, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

We suspected that rightwing politics caused mass injury and death. A new book proves it

When partisanship subsumes everything, people die. Period. 

A mass grave in New York early on in the pandemic.
A mass grave in New York early on in the pandemic.

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The Republicans are sabotaging the country’s full recovery from the covid pandemic. They don’t think so, though. They think they are standing up for individual liberty and citizen autonomy. What does sabotage have to do with defending our constitutional rights?

Not surprising. 

To see sabotage, as I do, you have to believe there’s such a thing as society. You have to believe there’s such a thing as “the public.” You have to believe there’s such a thing as “the common good.” If you don’t believe these things exist, then sabotage has nothing to do with it. 

“In the book, we talk about a counterfactual asking what would’ve happened if the first cases had been in Oklahoma City or Phoenix instead of Seattle and New York. We might have seen greater interest from the president and more coordination from the federal government.”

Of course, these things do exist. Ergo, the Republicans are sabotaging the nation – our political community. They’re not only falling down on the job. They’re falling down on purpose, forcing the rest of us to drag them along, thus prolonging a public health disaster that would have ended by now had the Republicans believed we’re all in this together. 

As journalist Heidi N. Moore put it this morning: “I really think we need to talk about how being OK with people dying is a mark of sociopaths.”

Don’t take my word for it. 

Shana Kushner Gadarian is political scientist at Syracuse University and coauthor of the forthcoming Pandemic Politics: How COVID-19 Exposed the Depth of American Polarization (Princeton). Their book looks at how the former president put his needs above ours, creating polarized conditions around public health that are still with us. It’s accurate, she said during our chat, to say partisanship equals death.

Your forthcoming book is called Pandemic Politics. Everything seems like pandemic politics these days. What does it mean to you?

My coauthors and I (UC Irvine’s Sara Wallace Goodman and Cornell’s Tom Pepinsky) looked specifically at politicization around pandemic policies very early on that created partisan gaps in how people in the public responded. For instance, as early as March 2020, we saw differences in health behaviors by the party someone identifies with.

We have survey data looking at policy attitudes, behaviors and evaluations of government from March 2020 to April 2021. These partisan gaps that we saw early on have stuck around. 

Donald Trump focused on the economy and getting the country going again to help his reelection and undercut public health early on. So people who trusted him and identified with him and the GOP were less likely than Democrats to support public health policies, like masking. 


We’ve seen the continuation of this alignment of party identification and attitudes on most issues around the pandemic. Even now that Trump is out of the picture, the competition for this Trumpian position continues among GOP members who want to run for president, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and is bolstered by media figures like Fox host Tucker Carlson.

Partisanship determines trust in public health policy. But it’s not like the government has been perfect. It has gotten things wrong. Yet Democrats appear willing to trust it. Why do you think that is?

I think there are a couple of things at work here. First, trust in the Centers for Disease Control is now lower than it has been in a long time across the board. That’s because the performance of the agency has been pretty bad. 

But Democrats have been more willing to trust in public health agencies and be more compliant because party leadership has emphasized listening to experts rather than making individual decisions while Republican leaders have been much more mixed on supporting public health leadership. 

Secondly, Democrats are much more concerned about the pandemic than Republicans are. Anxiety about an issue leads to more information-seeking and more trust in people who can help you fix the problem. The latter finding about anxiety is from my book with Bethany Albertson, Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World.

Mistrust of government politics and doubts about vaccines are nothing new. In our history, is this the first time mistrust and doubt are being sown from the top of a major political party?

I think we have historical evidence that party leadership might not be interested in talking about or urging public health funding for particular diseases when they are either stigmatized or not seen as affecting their partisans (like in the HIV-AIDS crisis early on).

So, what I think is different now is that Trump saw the health crisis as mostly about his own partisans rather than through the lens of the whole country. 


In the book we talk about a counterfactual asking what would’ve happened if the first cases had been in Oklahoma City or Phoenix instead of Seattle and New York. We might have seen greater interest from the president and more coordination from the federal government. 

But it’s also the case that the bureaucracy had been so hollow from years of neglect that the early days were always going to be hard in the pandemic.

If nothing else, the pandemic has demonstrated how wrong it was for conservative to spend decades starving public services. Trump’s stance was clear in the beginning when he thought, wrongly, that the covid was a blue-state disease.

I agree with all of that. Underinvestment in public health is like underinvestment in roads and other infrastructure.

What’s the potential for partisanship to influence trust in all vaccines, not just the covid vaccine? I imagine it’s fairly high.

That’s the real concern here. There’s evidence that there was a partisan gap in uptake of the H1N1 vaccine in 2009 but normal flu vaccines don’t have much in the way of partisan gaps. If Republican state legislatures start to undercut educational mandates for the covid vaccine and other childhood vaccines (like DeSantis is talking about in Florida) that would be a big problem for public health.

What can be done about that?

One is the upholding of mandates by the courts. Second is a campaign to remind people about how important vaccines are for overall health. That campaign should use people from non-partisan backgrounds that are highly trusted. 

But also people in power on all sides of the aisle should reinforce vaccination as an important economic, social and health tool.

Alan Greenblatt is a columnist for Governing. For a piece citing your work, he wrote this headline: “Partisanship = death.” Is that accurate? Fair?

Partisanship is an identity. It’s a useful one for deciding how to vote and what position to take on new issues. But it can also filter the information that we accept and what we think is accurate or useful. For the pandemic, that filtering has been really damaging.

I take that as a yes, it’s accurate.

Yes, it’s accurate.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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