The moment for a partisan pandemic

Posted on March 21, 2020 by Bryan Alexander

Someone soon may call this The Blue Plague.

Why? The largest urban clusters of coronavirus infections and deaths are, as of this writing, New York City, Seattle, and the Bay Area. Coming up in a second tier are Detroit and Chicago.

We can see this clearly in current data. Here’s the New York Times’ map:

Yes, there are nodes in Appalachia, the south, and the west, but the biggest ones are clearly deep in blue territory. NYC and San Francisco are bedrock Democratic towns.

We can also see this blueness reflected in state level data. Here’s the latest CDC release:

Again, New York and Washington in the lead, followed closely by New Jersey and California.

The New York Times offers a related list:

Blue states clearly dominate here, led by the urban areas noted above, plus New Jersey swept in due to its long-standing and deep connections with New York. As Ronald Brownstein remarks in the Atlantic,

each of the four states with the largest number of coronavirus cases is a Democratic-leaning place along the coast: New York, Washington, California, and New Jersey. Florida, a coastal, internationally oriented state that leans slightly toward the GOP, ranks fifth. Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, each with at least one big urban center that functions as a gateway for tourism and trade, come in next.


with only a few exceptions, the states with the fewest number of confirmed cases are smaller, Republican-leaning ones between the coasts, with fewer ties to diverse populations and the global economy. That list includes Wyoming, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

To be clear, the epidemiological reasons for this divide are important (think of these as global cities). I am certainly not at all arguing that these cities somehow caused their infections or deaths, or that they deserved them. Instead, I’m wondering if some Americans will make those arguments. Here I’m interested in the political and cultural ways we might interpret and make use of the coronavirus plague’s appearance so far. Recent political polarization should play a role, especially when heightened by a general election season. And the deep psychological and social dynamics of pandemics historically play out socially and politically.

There are already signs of this. Raw Story offers a survey of conservative snark on Twitter. Folks there complain about: left wing Democrats using COVID-19 to push for Medicare-for all; media bias; blue policies driving disease. It’s a useful and disturbing index. Elsewhere we can find conservatives proclaiming American strength in dealing with the pandemic or slamming progressive gender concerns as inappropriate for the crisis,

One way the blue-red COVID-19 political-cultural divide may be playing out is in terms of different state policies. For example,

blue cities and states [are] moving more aggressively — and more quickly — than more conservative communities. New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, has taken a number of steps, including banning gatherings of 50 or more people and most recently, on Wednesday ordering businesses to cut on-site workforces by half (people could work from home). San Francisco is under a “shelter in place” order, while Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, a Democrat, ordered a statewide shutdown of bars and restaurants.


Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, was castigated on social media for tweeting a photo of himself going out to dinner with his family — and for saying he would continue to do so despite the outbreak.

I’d add Alaska’s Republican Representative’s recent recommendation to senior citizens that they not worry about the virus (!).

That policy difference is in turn based on differing ideological approaches to government’s role. Ronald Brownstein observes that “[w]ith a few prominent exceptions, especially Ohio, states with Republican governors have been slower, or less likely, than those run by Democrats to impose restrictions on their residents.” He goes on to note:

Of the states that have taken the fewest actions to restrict public gatherings or limit restaurant service on a statewide basis — such as Texas, Missouri, and Alabama — almost all have Republican governors, according to research by Topher Spiro, the vice president for health policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, where he directs a program that examines state health initiatives.

In addition to a difference in state policies we may also see coronavirus attitudes divide most clearly in terms of a rural-urban split. Generally, of course, Democrats tend to succeed in cities while the GOP’s base is in the countryside. As the pandemic is so far focused on urban areas, we can expect political arguments to follow. For instance,

[Christopher Mooney, professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago]: “We’re really seeing this in Illinois — downstate, they are thinking of this as a Chicago problem,” Mooney says. People in conservative areas of the state think, “This is an urban problem. This is a foreign problem,” he adds.

Note that association of city with foreignness.

Ed Kilgore agrees:

there’s a chance it will simply reinforce small-town and rural hostility to the culturally alien influence of big-city folk aligned with foreigners, given the more cosmopolitan (demographically and economically as well) nature of Urban America…

There’s a demographic and policy angle to the country-city split which matters a great deal:

[Eva Kassens-Noor, a professor in the global-urban-studies program at Michigan State University] believes that U.S. communities will experience the coronavirus in contrasting, but complex, ways: While the disease will probably spread more rapidly in urban areas, she says, more of the population there is young and healthy. And while outbreaks may not be as pervasive in rural America, they could still prove very damaging because the population is older and has less access to quality health care.

Another driver for casting COVID-19 as the Blue Plague may come from Trump-era class politics. Brownstein again:

[Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern Republican Party:] “The feeling increasingly is that experts and the media are all part of this elite class that is self-dealing and is looking down on less-educated and less-fortunate people, and [that] they can’t be trusted to tell the truth.” He adds, “That dynamic … has been reinforced” by the emergence of the “conservative media ecosystem,” which unstintingly presents “elites” as a threat to viewers.

Note the part about the media. Long-standing Republican dislike of (some) media plays a role here, as shown in a recent Pew poll:

That media attitude goes further, connecting with a party divide about the seriousness of the threat:

So much of this is the present and very recent history. How might it unfold in the near future?

Brownstein offers two possibilities based on a scenario wherein “the virus never becomes pervasive beyond big cities.” First, that outcome “could reinforce the sense among many Republican voters and office-holders that the threat has been overstated.” Second, racism and nationalism could ramp up, as

it could also fuel the kind of xenophobia that Trump and other GOP leaders, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have encouraged by labeling the disease the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”

Kilgore adds another twist: “it’s also possible heartland insularity will feed on itself and embitter endangered people even more toward the godless, elitist mongrels of the East and West Coasts and the pathogens they breed.”

What if another scenario occurs, and the pandemic breaks into red as well as blue precincts? Kilgore sees a resulting drop in GOP fortunes: “It’s possible confidence in Trump and his administration will flag in Red America as the pandemic ceases to be mostly a blue-state, big-city phenomenon.”

Let me offer a third option, a different possibility in addition to the Masque of the Blue Death. The red-blue divide is not, nor has it ever been, a total description of American culture or even politics. It has always downplayed bipartisan agreement and policy areas that don’t play out in neatly nonpartisan ways, from privacy to intellectual property to a lot of foreign affairs. It papers over the enormous complexity and diversity found in a nation of 325+ million people stuck with only two political parties.

And in this case we’ve already seen similar variations. Ohio’s governor is a Republican, and that’s a newly minted red state, but DeWine took the lead in driving that state’s stay at home and institutional closure policies. Moreover, there are many ways for politicians dyed the deepest blue to work with a hated president. “Democratic governors have been in the unusual position of urging cooperation with a president they’ve spent their tenures battling and even suing.”

At another level we can recognize that for all of the cries that the GOP hates science, red states are as much consumers of health care as their blue competitors. At the same time we’d do well to remember progressive medical quackery (cf Goop) and the fact that antivaxxers are non- or bipartisan. For conservatives, being against evolution, say, does not mean one avoids antibiotics or ventilators. Hating pointy-headed intellectuals doesn’t keep conservatives away from pharmacies and hospitals. Call it cognitive dissonance or mental compartmentalization, red state folks get sick and turn to allied health for help. As a result they can view the coronavirus pandemic as, well, a dangerous virus, and call for a range of expanded services.

Such a call could well emphasize the private sector and nonprofits (think of religious groups) over state support, but that ideological divide could also fall away thanks to another aspect of Republican and conservative thought. Note that Trump referred to the national drive against COVID-19 as a war. That’s a carefully chosen term. The post-Vietnam War GOP prides itself on its support of the military, and a good number of its members seem likely to support having the federal government organize society along warlike lines, especially if such an effort was led by one of their own.

This can lead to positions that cut against the normal red versus blue narrative. A casual trawl of Trump’s recent Twitter emissions shows him celebrating a landlord telling tenants not to pay rent, a blow against sacred contracts. He praised a Republican senator’s support for telemedicine — not exactly the actions of anti-science zealots. And he just claimed to be using the hated federal government to… give money to small business and workers?

I’m not saying Trump has suddenly had a radical change of heart and embraced the tenets of modern progressive thought. He’s also pushing drugs that medical authorities seem to say won’t work. I’m also not saying both Dems and GOPs are equal; my own politics are to the left of the Dem mainstream. I’m not calling for bothsidesism. Instead I’m arguing that red versus blue is a clumsy analytical tool, and using it will cause us to miss a good chunk of reality. That’s a bad move in a pandemic.

To sum up: we could see America acculturate the COVID-19 pandemic in culture war terms, with political implications. On the other hand, this Blue Plague moment might be a brief one, depending on the virus’ progress and how Republicans respond.

If the former occurs, what does a COVID-ized culture war look like? Much depends on how far the pandemic goes. If the course is brief and we all heave a sigh of relief in late April, virus arguments could just become part of the general political discourse.

The longer the pandemic lasts, though, the deeper the pressure on and damage to American life, and the greater the odds of civil unrest. Unemployed people living in desperation and fear for their lives are fine candidates for insurgencies and violence. Social breakdown can make room for countervailing structures, which might not be so benign. We could see official or DIY barriers of all kinds put up between red and blue area, within or between states. Imagine people launching online attacks, mail threats, or in-person assaults on those they deem unclean or enabling the plague.

For education, I will have much more to say in following posts. For now we can think of political pressure to cut support to academia in many forms: state funding for public universities, federal research programs, political laws aimed at curtailing or supporting certain campus behaviors, and so on. If this plays out in terms of the culture war, we should expect increased Republican and rural resentment of colleges and universities.

(cross-posted to my blog)



Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.