Prodigal Partisans and the Pandemic

Zombie tribalism is a serious national liability.

The beepers are beeping and the nudgers are nudging. You can hear them at the intersection. You can feel them in the checkout line. No more masks. No more standing back. No more waiting. No. More.

You can feel restive, post-coronavirus America squirming like a bag full of snakes. This great nervous energy seems ready to burst out on the nation. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, spring fever always lays heavy around this part of May. But we’ve had an especially long, lovely, cool spring. Even without the end of the coronavirus shutdowns, this summer would have been ready to pop. Add the two together, and you had better stock up on grain alcohol, fireworks, red popsicles, and bandages. 

But over on the other side of the street, there’s no beeping or nudging. There are whisperers and mumblers; shooters of sidelong glances and stagy mask adjusters; and crisp clickers of hand-sanitizer caps.

Many are efficient masters of the pandemic world, striding with confidence through the no-man’s land they learned to navigate so successfully in these 61 weeks. They learned to defeat the chaos and panic of last spring by planning and preparing. They built a life raft out of precaution and they are determined not to capsize so close to shore. We owe our success as a species to the durability of our will to survive, but it comes at the cost of quite a lot of fear and a good deal of superstitious clinging.

From the start, COVID-19 exposed and exploited the deep divisions in American life. Spreading best through close contact, the virus afflicted big cities first. It was a problem for Blue America, thought the redder half. That’s why we live out here, they said to themselves with satisfaction. Why should we bail them out? Why should we stop doing whatever we like whenever we like? And they did, sometimes nearly 500,000 strong. There was an arrogance to the recklessness rooted in the American right’s contempt for intellectualism and nannying. If those eggheads tell you to do something, do the opposite. Compliance was submission and refusal was proof of independence, they said—even when forming obedient herds of their own. And as the riots flared in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, maybe, they thought, this was all the just punishment for these American Gomorrahs.  

But Red America was in for hard lessons. The virus found its way out into “real America” and found great advantage in the stubbornness of its residents’ refusal to acknowledge the magnitude of the threat. The death toll was staggering. And many of those folks who had suffered in the cities through the first wave couldn’t deny themselves a little smug satisfaction at seeing the rubes get their comeuppance. Call it the universe, karma or “the science,” but justice was being visited on the same people who had dismissed the anguish of those living through the first wave. Vindicated in their caution, many of the city folks became prideful. They doubled their masks like temple garments at the tabernacle of science. As in every faith, their orthodoxies soon became ostentations. The Pharisees are always with us.

Now, this telling does no justice to all of the wonders America produced through this ordeal. Our businesses produced miracles of science and logistics. Many in health care and public safety worked themselves to exhaustion to serve us. Families, friends, and neighbors opened their hearts and homes to those in need. Our country may have stumbled, but we also discovered previously unknown strength and ingenuity. 

Nor is the story about red vs. blue or city vs. country as simple as it appears. There were plenty of conservatives out in the heartland who were COVID-conscious and plenty of big-city Democrats who couldn’t be bothered. Indeed, most of us followed our own arcs that passed through multiple categories based on our experiences. Like with the parable of the prodigal son, in our lives we end up playing multiple parts. Sometimes we are the obedient but resentful brother, sometimes we are the wastrel. But none of that subtracts from the pandemic’s grim demonstration of the terrible consequences of our habit of mindless tribalism. Untold lives were lost because millions of Americans refused to comply with even modest restrictions. Still more lives were ruined by the adherence to the shibboleths of shutdownism even after evidence showed them unnecessary. We can debate the scale of the damage, but there is no doubt that our tightly sorted, binary political tribes inflicted serious harm to our country. Fanatical, Manichaean partisanship is always stupid, but applying this thinking in an evolving, unpredictable crisis like the one from which we are emerging is deadly.

The question now is whether this harrowing experience will cause us to rethink the way we have been living. There is a lot of debate these days over which changes brought on or accelerated by the pandemic will remain and which will fade. Will the work-from-home revolution last? Will we shun big cities? Etc. Among these and many other worthwhile questions we should also be asking ourselves this: Are we ready to admit that this zombie partisanship has become a serious national liability? Will we start to see it as a vice we can no longer afford?

Many of us have devoted considerable time to studying how the dawn of social media, a weakly educated citizenry, post-industrial society, cultural upheaval, hollowed-out parties, a decadent national news media, and a host of other factors brought us to the miserable pass of these perpetual populist revolts so easily manipulated by demagogues and con artists. We should continue to do so in hopes of finding a way out of our troubles and avoiding them in the future. But we should also remember the simple things, too. Cheap partisanship that promises no compromise and total victory could never look quite so foolish as it did in the face of the pandemic. 

The events of January 6 sounded the death knell for the frenzied, ecstatic nationalism favored by many on the right. It will take time for these Republicans to admit it, but their movement discredited itself in ways that will only grow in hindsight. But don't underestimate the power of our shared failures on the pandemic to teach broader lessons about the price of our partisan addictions. As we emerge into a post-COVID world, the beepers and the mumblers alike may come to see that this tribalism is deadly indeed.