We're in a bit of a mess. The United States faces a crisis against a common enemy. Americans are suffering and dying. We’re afraid to leave our homes. We face uncertainties about our health, economy, and future.
We’ve been here before. In 2001.
On 9/10 in 2001, we were talking about Congressman Gary Condit and Chandra Levy, talks between President Bush and Congress to jumpstart a softening economy, the ethics of stem cell research.
We weren’t much removed from worrying about Y2K, debating those hanging chads in Florida, and Clinton’s impeachment. America couldn’t decide if Bush had stolen the election from Gore, or if Clinton should have been removed from office.
We remembered worrying about whether the world was going to end when we ran out of days in the 1900s. We hadn’t settled on a name for a new decade.
But, 2001, at that point, didn’t feel like much else than the twelfth year of the 1990s.
Until September 11.
Our 9/12 Moment — In 2001
On that bright, late summer Tuesday, chaos erupted. Suddenly, we were thrust into a new era. Our obsessions with chads and politician infidelities and the 90s ended on 9/11 as sure as that summer ended in early September.
After the attacks, nothing was ever the same. Even nearly 20 years on, we still don’t fly the same. We don’t vote the same. And we don’t think the same.
In the days after the planes flew into the Towers, the Pentagon, and that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, we became bigger than ourselves, we saw beyond our differences, and we came together to fight a common enemy: religious extremists outside America.
9/12 was our generational moment. Our country experienced a sense of unity that we hadn’t experienced since Pearl Harbor, almost 60 years earlier.
We crossed into a new age — and for a while, we came together as a country. We had our 9/12 moment.
We watched the news with renewed zeal. We attached flags to our cars. 82% of Americans flew the US flag as a direct response to the 9/11 attacks. A bipartisan coalition of 150 Congress members sang God Bless America on the steps of the US Capitol.
That wave of patriotism, alive again during that 9/12 moment, surged past Clinton’s 1998 impeachment and that hanging chad mess of the 2000 presidential election. We thought that that patriotism would never fade … and then it did.
When That 9/12 Moment Faded
Polarization crept back into our national psyche, eventually. A long war on terror, the tea party movement, President Trump’s surprise win in 2016, his impeachment earlier this year — these and countless other 21st-century moments divided us, while they also united us within our political bubbles, all the while reinforced and fed by the individualized news streams now available to us at all hours, wherever we are.
Even before the coronavirus crisis came to a head this year, the extent of polarization in the US was striking.
Somehow, we got back to here, worse off than we’ve ever been. All that pent-up resistance to Trump’s policies yielded, at one time, 24 candidates who were vying for the 2020 Democratic ticket. Four years earlier, a similar, but opposing resistance to Obama’s presidency encouraged as many as 22 Republican candidates to vie for the nomination to that ticket.
America’s polarization is real. As Americans fight with each other over politics, hide dissenting opinions on social media, and gather in like-minded groups, it's getting really hard to see a way we can all come together again.
Then the novel coronavirus came.
When The ‘Teens Ended
By the end of December 2019, the first reports were emerging from China of cases of pneumonia. Days later, alarm spread as a seafood market in Wuhan was closed and suspicions of a novel coronavirus emerged.
By the middle of January, Thailand and Japan reported cases, as China reported its first deaths. By January 20, the first case hit American soil, in Washington state. At the end of January, the WHO declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency and the US started talking community spread and travel restrictions.
Images of Chinese citizens in face masks, overseas lockdowns, and contact tracking flooded our news feeds. American society soon followed suit, closing down sector by sector, and rapidly. Sports, entertainment, all non-essential businesses closed within days.
We started tuning in daily for COVID-19 case counts and deaths, news on hospital capacities. We all learned what PPE was, and just how dear it can become when it’s scarce.
Today, we have more than 600,000 cases of coronavirus in the US, about 30% of the world’s total.
What went wrong?
We Got Here Because We’re Polarized
How we got here depends on who you ask, or who you watch.
Since mid-February, ABC News polling site 538 has tracked Americans’ opinion of President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. And, not surprisingly, our evaluation of his response, as a country, comes right down the middle.
As of mid-April, 47.7% of Americans think he’s doing a good job. Just slightly more, 48.5%, think he could do better, or much better.
For some of us, it’s really hard to see the other side. How can we be watching the same crisis unfold and come to such radically different conclusions?
Enter political parties.
FiveThirtyEight also tracks Americans’ approval rating of President Trump's crisis response by political party. The analysis is pretty telling.
On April 14, 86.1% of Republicans approve of President Trump’s handling of the crisis, while just 17.8% of Democrats feel the same way. Independents fall somewhere in the middle — 43.3%.
How have those results evolved since mid-February — as the first US death was reported, the national emergency was declared, millions filed for unemployment, and US deaths have grown to become the largest in the world?
Since February, the parties have become even more entrenched in their positions:
- Republicans think more highly of the President. Their approval ratings have increased: from 80.4% on February 16 to 86.1% on April 14.
- Democrats think less of the President. Their approval ratings have gone down: from 27.1% to 17.8% in the same period.
- Independent voter opinions haven't really changed, moving from 41.4% to 43.3%, from February 16 to April 14.
Even Americans’ belief in the need for social distancing falls along party lines. In late March, the Pew Research Center found that Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to feel comfortable taking part in activities like visiting a close friend or family member at home, eating out at a restaurant, or even attending a crowded party.
And that roughly follows many states’ responses to the pandemic. According to an article appearing in The Economist’s April 4, 2020 print edition, New York-based Unacast tracked the location data of mobile users between February 28 and March 27 — as social distancing guidelines were being implemented — to determine if fewer mobile phone users were traveling as a result.
Unacast found that the average American travelled about 30% less after social distancing guidelines were implemented. They also determined that every state that cut travel by more than 44% voted Democrat, i.e., for Hilary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election.
What about the 25 states that cut travel less than the 30% average after social distancing guidelines went into effect? All but three of those 25 states voted Republican, i.e., for Donald Trump, in the 2016 election.
We’re all living the same crisis, watching the same press conferences. So, why do Democrats and Republicans see the world through such different lenses?
Why are we living in different realities?
Inhabiting Very Different Realities for a Really Long Time
In 2014, as the US faced the Ebola threat, a CBS News survey found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of Republicans disapproved of President Obama’s handling of the crisis while 71% of Democrats approved.
More than five years earlier, in April 2009, as the US lived through the swine flu crisis, a Gallup poll found that 83% of Democrats approved of Obama’s response to the swine flu crisis while less than half of Republicans — 47% — felt the same.
…Divided We Fall?
It’s clear we’re divided as a country, and we have been divided for years, if not decades. That gulf is growing larger. Much of this can be traced to the 24-news cycle and the need to fill that space with content that keeps viewers tuned in.
We seek the news we want to see, and that will validate the beliefs we bring to our screens. Over time, those beliefs harden, influence who we include in our ‘tribes,’ and color the way we see the world.
The news we’re fed influences our views, how we vote, and how we see the world and others. That news also influences our leaders and how they sell themselves to us and navigate their political victories.
We’ve seen how politicians can win by excluding one set of Americans while exciting the votes of another.
We’re Not a Coronavirus Success Story
Our polarization is to blame for where we find ourselves today. Tens of thousands of Americans will likely die from COVID-19. On April 9, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci estimated that the country’s eventual death toll will approximate some 60,000 lives. That’s far less than the 100,000 to 200,000 deaths that were predicted just a couple of weeks earlier, but still more than the US military casualties of the Vietnam War, which took place over 14 years, not a few months.
We’re not one of the world’s success stories. We haven’t beaten back coronavirus.
While political polarization has slowed our ability as a country to adopt social distancing, to call this a crisis, to admit we lost the ability to contain community spread, and to even unite against this common enemy, the US has rocketed ahead of every other country on Earth in terms of COVID-19 deaths.
As of April 14, 2020, the US has nearly 26,000 COVID-19 deaths, more than Italy or Spain or China. Our North American neighbors Canada (898 deaths) and Mexico (332 deaths) both have far fewer deaths. In fact, the rest of the Americas combined has far fewer deaths than the United States.
They’ve got political divisions too, but somehow overcame them in order to unite in defense against COVID.
The United States has done anything but.
Coronavirus Doesn’t Care About Walls or How You Identify
Coronavirus infects with reckless abandon. It doesn’t stop to see who you are, how you identify, or which news media you read or watch. It has the opportunity to infect us all equally — and sees right beyond the polarization rampant in our society.
Coronavirus has failed to unite us. We’re not getting our 9/12 moment.
While one of our lasting images from 9/11 shows firefighters hoisting the US flag over the rubble of the Twin Towers, the images that will survive from the coronavirus crisis a generation later seem to be those of shoppers fighting over toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Even before this coronavirus crisis, we faced a nasty election battle. While this crisis largely pushed that battle from the headlines, our shared fight against the coronavirus should have pulled us together, but it didn’t and it won’t — until we learn to see beyond our boundaries and categories, and see ourselves as one species united in a fight against the virus.
We need our 9/12 moment, but we won't get there by leaving people behind.