Topsy-Turvy

Ever since Barack Obama gave his famous red states vs. blue states speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, America has suffered a kindof bipolar disorder in its thinking.  This is not to say we weren’t identifiably divided into conservatives and liberals before that, but I think the division centered on how to accomplish national goals rather than whether to accomplish them.  And I should say, at the outset thoughtful reader, that the blame does not lie with Barack Obama’s rhetoric; he described and decried the growing polarization of the country, he did not cause it.

The pandemic has brought this problem into sharp focus.  Whether we are talking about the COVID relief bill making its way through Congress or certain governors’ attitudes toward lockdowns and mask mandates, current political orthodoxy dictates that, if you’re Left-leaning, you’re all about social distancing, mask-wearing, vaccination, and absolutely not flinging open the doors of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues just yet (or at least not to their pre-COVID indoor capacities), while if you come down on the Right you’d support breaking into nursing homes and licking all the patients’ faces if it would jumpstart the economy.  I’d suggest this is a false dichotomy, perpetrated for purely political reasons.

‘Political' shouldn’t be a dirty word we use to denigrate someone’s motivation; politics is the art of people who are different from one another figuring out how to live together.  Ah, and there is the key — figuring out how to live together.  I’m sure my idea of civil liberties and social justice as a proud member of the LGBTQ community living in Southern California differs from an Evangelical Christian making her home in the buckle of the Bible Belt; I don’t want to hear about the so-called “sin of Sodom,” she doesn’t want anyone who wasn’t listed as a woman on her birth certificate using the ladies room.  Clearly, we have differences fundamental to how we live our lives.  But we share a country, a country founded on equality.  We have to learn to live together.

A year into this pandemic, we are used to the all-too-simplistic correlation between people’s overall political outlook and their views about large gatherings and masks. The Lefties are seemingly 100% pro-lockdown, while the Right voices its lockdown skepticism.  But, if you think about it, this is bassackwards; shouldn’t the correlation be the other way ‘round?

The threat to life caused by coronavirus stalks those on the Left and those on the Right with equal ferocity.  But the data shows it is the the elderly who are both more likely to die of COVID and vote Republican, while younger and less socially secure people are statistically more likely to be Democratic voters, and suffer the adverse effects of a downturn in the job market because businesses can’t meet their payroll due to public health restrictions on their operations.  Given these realities, you’d expect that the push for safety and caution with regard to the virus would come more from those in the Republican camp more than the Democratic; likewise, given the negative economic impact of lockdown measures, you might expect lockdown skepticism to come more from the Democrats.  Yet exactly the opposite is in evidence.

No one is against safety.  Governor Abbott in Texas and Governor Reeves in Mississippi, in lifting lockdown restrictions, do not want their citizens to be less safe.  I blame the current dust-up on the either/or mentality expressed when President Biden in-artfully referred to those governors’ decisions as "Neanderthal thinking.”  If name-calling wasn’t helpful during the Trump years, it’s not helpful now.  And it’s not even accurate; Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of my state of California and one of the most progressive politicians in recent memory, is charting a course that makes Abbott and Reeves look like pusillanimous pussyfooters!  As reported by ABC News, "Next month, nearly the entire state could see a return of inside restaurant dining, the reopening of movie theaters and other indoor businesses, far more children back in classrooms and competing in sports — maybe even fans in the stands for Opening Day of Major League Baseball."

Talk of safety is hard to counter; attempts to do so have centered on the economy, due in no small part to former President Trump tying his reelection bid to its success. That, in turn, has led to accusations from many on the Left that any talk of loosening restrictions aimed at keeping the public safe is putting money ahead of people’s lives.  This is enormously simplistic.  Striking a balance between the living of a life and the saving of a life is a constant struggle and causes arguments about everything from speed limits to cigarette smoking.

Mr. Topsy-Turvy

This pitting of the anecdotally safety-minded Left against the equally as anecdotally money-minded Right reduces the debate on how to handle the pandemic moving forward to one more focused on ideology rather than common sense.  It seems obvious to me that if you get sick you won’t be going out for brunch a lot, yet keeping protective restrictions in place that make it hard to attract paying customers to dine in your restaurant so you can hire everything from waiters to dish-washers isn’t a solution.  And the Left/Right divide gets turned on its head when you realize the waiters and dish-washers are more likely to (a) be younger in age, (b) be Democrats, and (c) need restrictions lifted, contravening party orthodoxy, so they can earn money to pay rent, while the restaurant owner is more likely to (a) be older, (b) be a Republican, and (c) see restrictions as existentially necessary, contravening his or her party's orthodoxy, because they are at greater risk of dying from exposure to coronavirus.

The COVID relief bill being voted on in the House tomorrow should not be partisan, but it is political in the best sense of that word.  It acknowledges two constituencies — a need for people to be safe against a deadly viral enemy and a need for people (and businesses and states) to have money available for necessities.  It ought not to be a party line vote, though it likely will be, because survival is neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue.  The realignment of priorities caused by the pandemic is an example of the shortcoming of binary, either/or thinking.

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