Pandemic revealing depths of nation's divide

Carl P. Leubsdorf
The Dallas Morning News (TNS)
In May 2021, more than 200 protesters rallied at Lawyers Mall in Annapolis, Maryland, to oppose the COVID-19 vaccine mandate announced by the University of Maryland system. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Unfortunately, Barack Obama was wrong when he blamed pundits for trying “to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states.

“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America,” the future 44th president contended at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, seeking to make a case that unifying attitudes often transcended partisan lines.

The premise and the promise of that speech helped create the career that four years later took Obama to the White House. But it likely wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t true now, as a country already split electorally has shown those divisions reflected in more and more areas of national life.

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The chasm between Democrats and Republicans over how best to fight the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic is endangering the nation’s well-being as perhaps nothing since divisions over slavery split the union and caused the Civil War.

In recent weeks, COVID has surged in states where prominent Republican governors have led the resistance to the stricter measures like mandating vaccinations and masks that most medical experts recommend as the best way to fight the pandemic.

It is forcing a frustrated President Joe Biden, whose administration has made vaccinations a top priority in seeking to stamp out the pandemic, to consider extraordinary measures like withholding federal funds to force greater compliance.

In blue states like New Jersey, California and Illinois, Democratic governors have acted to increase vaccinations and require mask wearing in schools. The Pentagon ordered all members of the military to get shots. Private companies are increasingly requiring employees to get them. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged indoor masks by all students, teachers and others in K-12 schools.

But in red states like Texas, Florida and South Dakota, politically ambitious Republicans like Govs. Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis and Kristi Noem have not only resisted steps to prevent spread of the virus, but also sought to keep local school and governmental authorities from taking action.

In Florida, DeSantis issued an executive order permitting the state’s top education official to withhold funds from school boards imposing mask requirements.

In Texas, Abbott signed one banning local governments and school boards from mandating vaccinations or masks. But local authorities are resisting, especially in the two largest cities, Dallas and Houston.

The Texas and Florida governors’ adamant stance contrasts with fellow Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who signed a bill barring mask mandates, then urged its repeal. “Facts change, and leaders have to adjust to the new facts,” he said Sunday on CBS’ "Face the Nation."

Texans, Abbott said, “have the individual right and responsibility” to make decisions “for themselves and their children.” But their decisions will not only affect themselves and their children, but those with whom they come into contact.

Responsibility: Just as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote that freedom of speech does not permit a person to shout “fire” in a theater, so too does the acceptance of personal responsibility not permit actions that could endanger others.

And the strong consensus of medical professionals, admittedly, after some bad advice early on, is that vaccination and masking are the best ways to halt the disease and prevent its spread.

Recent studies have shown that virtually all patients being admitted to hospitals with the disease — and those dying from it — have been unvaccinated. There is a correlation between the recent increase in COVID cases and the percentage of unvaccinated people.

Other Republicans led by former President Donald Trump have joined Abbott and DeSantis in saying the issue is the right of individuals to protect themselves. But in fact, much of this is about politics — and the premature start of the battle to become the next Republican presidential nominee.

It mirrors the partisan divide over who is getting anti-COVID shots and who is resisting them. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 33% of Republicans said they did not plan to get shots, compared with just 5% of Democrats. The South had the highest percentage.

That suggests it won’t hurt Republican hopefuls to oppose mandatory shots and masks. Polls show the recent upsurge has weakened Biden’s approval numbers. Ironically, rival GOP gubernatorial hopefuls fault Abbott for not doing enough to reopen Texas businesses.

But politicians like Abbott and DeSantis may be vulnerable to charges they sacrificed their citizens’ health for political gain, if the number of Texans and Floridians suffering — or dying — from the pandemic continues to increase.

As with Trump’s obsession on unproven contentions of 2020 election fraud, what plays with some Republicans may play less well in the broader general electorate. Recent polling in Florida shows that.

Meanwhile, DeSantis, Abbott and some other GOP officials are blaming the pandemic’s resurgence in their states on the Biden administration for allowing illegal immigrants to enter the country with the disease.

That may be a problem in some border areas, but it is a stretch to say that’s made COVID cases soar throughout the South.

Divisions between states have always existed on issues, both national and regional. In recent years, Republican state attorneys general have regularly sued Democratic national administrations, and Democrats have sued Republicans.

But it’s hard to recall a time in recent memory that those divisions have so profoundly affected the nation’s well-being.

— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.