On April 17, 2020, FixUS hosted an online forum entitled “Polarization and the Pandemic” that nearly 500 people registered to participate in. The event featured a diverse group of thought leaders who addressed the question of how the COVID crisis will impact the growing divisiveness of our national politics. Mike Murphy, director of FixUS, kicked off the event by briefly describing the initiative, which was founded on the premise that our internal divisions, government dysfunction, and distrust in governing institutions are preventing us from addressing the major challenges facing the United States (learn more and get involved with FixUS at fixusnow.org).
Murphy set the stage for the discussion by stating that “This once in a lifetime crisis may serve to either pour gasoline and exacerbate the divisions and distrust permeating our political life, or … this could serve as the common enemy like no other, and help unify our country so we can have a more shared sense of purpose and confront our many challenges.”
Stephen Hawkins, research director of More in Common, then gave a presentation on a new study, “Polarization and the Pandemic: How COVID-19 is Changing Us.” One of the findings of the recent polling is that the shared experience of the coronavirus pandemic has bolstered many Americans’ perceptions of unity.
In fact, twice as many Americans have felt more united rather than more divided since the pandemic began. Hawkins concluded that it is too early to tell if this moment will translate from a general feeling of “we are in this together” to a long-term bridging of partisan differences, but he saw some reasons for optimism.
Opening up the panel discussion, Nolan McCarty of Princeton University contended that leadership will be the driving factor in determining how we emerge from this situation, stating he thinks that “probably as important as the … views of the American voters individually are to this question, perhaps most important is how our leaders act or don’t act in order to make it a moment of national unity as opposed to one of partisan division.”
McCarty also discussed what he calls “federal polarization.” He sees a breakdown of cooperation between states and with the federal government because states are increasingly controlled by one party. Partisan divides among state governments make it more difficult to achieve a unified approach to solving problems.
Ashley Quarcoo of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace followed with an optimistic message by highlighting how other countries addressed the pandemic in a positive way. She specifically cited South Korea, where the president called for trust and unity and apologized to the nation for early missteps. South Africa was another example, where political parties put aside initial partisan differences to speak with one voice in addressing the crisis.
Yascha Mounk of Johns Hopkins University suggested that countries that are more successful in confronting the crisis will experience greater unity and an increased trust in government: “Those countries that do manage to … beat down this pandemic are going to have achieved one of the great miracles of human history. And I think people will actually think of this moment as one of solidarity and mutual aid.”
Later, Mounk noted that Americans are more likely to say there is more that unites us than divides us, saying that “The hopeful piece of news … most of our fellow citizens do have a deep desire to feel connected to each other. To get through this moment in solidarity.”
Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution agreed with Stephen Hawkins that the data indicates an increase in feelings of solidarity among voters. But he also sees no change in the partisanship between the cores of the two parties, which is a roadblock to progress. He said that “When it’s hard to get through to either section of the public and when it’s hard for them to compare notes, get together, and talk across those lines … it gets much harder to sort things out.”
On a positive note, Rauch pointed out that several grassroots organizations are promoting civic dialog and community, such as Braver Angels and The Aspen Institute’s new project, Weave. Along those lines, Quarcoo encouraged people to leave their bubbles and seek different perspectives, encouraging listeners to “Reach out to people who are different than you.”
Mounk concurred, explaining that “What we are really lacking, and what I think we all will really have an appetite for when the social distancing measures … finally end, is to rebuild community.” He concluded that talking to others from different social, economic, and political backgrounds “helps to humanize people on the other side of the partisan divide.”
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