The Corner

Politics & Policy

Can We Stop Talking about Pandemic Deaths in Red/Blue Terms?

A medical specialist smokes near ambulances equipped with lung ventilators, purchased by local authorities for patients infected with coronavirus disease.March 19, 2020. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Our hyper-partisan age demands that just about everything be seen through the lens of Red America and Blue America. Sometimes, that goes too far.

One of the uglier sides of this tendency is the ongoing race to argue over whether more people are getting sick and dying in red or blue states. A fair amount of this stuff originated with the “Always Be Owning the Libs” crowd on the right, when the early infectious outbreaks were concentrated most heavily in New York, California, and Washington. Some of the pushback on the left resulted from that. But the efforts on the left to push a “it’s coming worse for the red states” narrative have come from people who would normally be considered more respectable. We’ve seen everything from Yahoo asking why “Blue” communities are hit harder to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog’s analyzing Google searches broken down by red/purple/blue states to Nate Silver’s posting charts (regularly updated on Twitter) of infection rates by “Trump states” and “Clinton states.”

Methodologically, there are problems with this kind of thinking. Most states have enclaves that are very politically and/or culturally out of step with the state’s overall partisan lean, from deep-red upstate New York to the black communities of South Carolina and Mississippi. Only a handful of states has been monolithically governed by one party at the state and major-municipal levels over the past decade, and a number of states have been less than consistently red or blue at the presidential level. Was Maine still a blue state under Paul LePage? Is Louisiana red under John Bel Edwards? Was Florida a blue state when it voted for Obama twice?

More to the point, even if it is entirely reasonable in a postmortem to evaluate how, say, Republican and Democratic governors as a group handled the pandemic response, it is ghoulish to be tracking this stuff for the purposes of partisan point-scoring while the bodies are still piling up. The more we think in those terms, the more we start (even if subconsciously) rooting for them to happen. The more we get dug into media narratives of that nature, the more we give national politicians an incentive to focus on making their own “side” look better instead of promoting best practices and national solidarity.

Partisan politics can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t go away in a national crisis; it’s the adversarial system that keeps democracy from devolving entirely into a conspiracy of the governing class against the people. But can we at least stop seeing the illness and death of fellow Americans as “red people” and “blue people” in the middle of a pandemic?

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