The coronavirus killed American exceptionalism
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The coronavirus killed American exceptionalism

An illustration of a tattered flag.Getty Images

The pandemic has forced us to face a brutal truth: America isn’t as exceptional as it thinks it is. Here’s why we faltered.

The reports coming out of the United States under coronavirus have the feel of dispatches from the fall of Rome — a society-wide crackup of what was, in theory, the most advanced and influential nation on the planet.

Nurses have had to sew their own masks because the government failed to stockpile enough personal protective equipment (PPE). Health care workers who ran out of medical gowns turned to wearing ponchos donated by local baseball teams. They were the lucky ones — other nurses have donned garbage bags out of sheer desperation.

In the chaotic fight against coronavirus, states have competed against one other and the federal government in bidding wars for PPE. Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is currently hiding thousands of coronavirus tests, purchased from South Korea, in an “undisclosed location” protected by the National Guard. Hogan is concerned that the federal government might seize them.

Amid the economy’s free fall, Floridians have been forced to swamp unemployment insurance offices in person because the state’s website doesn’t work. From New Jersey to Minnesota to Texas, cars have stretched out as far as the eye can see as people wait in lines at food banks. The president is trying to force meatpacking workers to their factories, in conditions known to facilitate coronavirus spread, to keep grocery store meat fridges fully stocked.

In the American national consciousness, our country has always been the richest and most advanced in the world. We have the best of everything. We are the most “first world” of all the developed countries.

But in the United States of America, in the year 2020, the only categories we seem to be leading the rest of the world in are the numbers of confirmed infections and deaths from coronavirus.

 Rani Molla and Dylan Scott/Vox

The dystopian images and dismal numbers do not render America a “failed state,” as some might have it. The United States is far from alone in mishandling the pandemic — several advanced states, like Sweden and Japan, have botched their responses in one way or another.

But such comparisons have not made our failures any easier to stomach. For decades, Americans have been conditioned to think of America as not just any country. Our popular histories and media tell us a story of “American exceptionalism” — the notion that we are unique among, maybe even superior to, every other nation on the planet, the world’s rightful hegemon and steward. This ideal was never universally accepted, and always glossed over much that was ugly about our country, but the notion was widely shared.

Today, it is nearly impossible to maintain. Faced with perhaps the most significant global crisis since the end of the Cold War, America has proven itself to be depressingly ordinary, even substandard.

This is especially obvious to foreign observers. Henrik Enderlein, president of the Hertie School graduate university in Berlin, told the New York Times that “we are all stunned” by the scenes coming out of America. An April 30 editorial in Le Monde, France’s paper of record, proclaimed this the end of the American era.

“The United States no longer exercises the role attributed to it in the 20th century, that of world leadership,” the editors write. “In this crisis, it has completely extracted itself from it.”

 Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Residents wait in line at a pop-up food pantry in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on April 22.

China, whose botched early response and cover-up of the early Wuhan outbreak rank as perhaps the greatest errors of the entire pandemic, has manipulated America’s incompetence to make itself look good by comparison. Trump’s downplaying of the virus became fodder for a brutally effective propaganda video on Chinese state media.

What the US and the world are witnessing in real time is the collapse of what billions the world over believed to be true: that America is exceptionally insulated from the cruelties and failures that plague other countries, and exceptionally suited to lead the international order.

The end of American exceptionalism has many contributors. But there’s one I’d like to focus on. For our nation to be exceptional, it needs to actually be a nation: a community that sees itself, at least in part, as having shared aims and self-conception. American nationhood has become subordinate to partisan identity, party routinely trumping country. This division, in particular the partisan gamesmanship that has defined the Trump administration and the national Republican response, has played a notable role in many of the country’s current policy failures.

Throughout President Trump’s inept, even dangerous, handling of the coronavirus crisis, national Republican leaders have stood by him as they always have, even though the stakes now — a pandemic and economic misery not seen since the Great Depression — are as high as they’ve been in decades.

In confronting a crisis that’s touching both blue and red America, Republicans continue to think in terms of party and political interest. In the latest round of federal stimulus, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked vital funding for financially distressed states, saying he’d prefer states go bankrupt. An email from his office later made his reasons clear: It described such assistance as a “Blue State Bailout.” (After coming under fire for his position, he has since said he’s “open” to such aid — with conditions.)

 Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the Senate Republican policy luncheon on May 5.
 Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
President Trump speaks to reporters before he departs to tour a mask factory in Arizona, on May 5.

Trump has said much the same. “It’s not fair to the Republicans, because all the states that need help, they’re run by Democrats in every case,” he told the New York Post in an early May interview.

The other side of this partisan coin is the way Trump has used the powers of the federal government as his personal patronage system, working to benefit GOP governors and incumbent senators in the fight against coronavirus. After the federal government seized 500 ventilators requested by Colorado’s Democratic governor, Trump sent 100 back to the state — crediting them to Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican up for reelection in 2020.

And then there’s the right-wing media, which has advanced and amplified the Trump line, even at the expense of public health and safety. Fox News in particular downplayed the epidemic early, repeatedly hyped up small anti-social-distancing protests, and tried to sell its audience on hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment despite clearly insufficient evidence. All these messages were wrapped up in a culture-war frame that heaped opprobrium on Democrats and the media.

Each country’s coronavirus failures have stemmed from its particular problems — authoritarian instincts to cover up bad news; out-of-touch public health officials. America’s stem from our fundamentally cloven national identity.

When leaders from one of two major parties view themselves as partisans first, the country cannot live up to its claims to be exceptional.

Political division and the death of American exceptionalism

It seems crassly partisan to say that Republicans have done more damage to America’s shared national identity than Democrats have. And to be clear, the end of American exceptionalism isn’t solely the work of Republican Party elites.

Yet any honest reckoning with the collapse of American exceptionalism must include recognizing that there are core differences between the two political parties — and that these differences mean one party behaves in a more responsible way than the other.

In their book Asymmetric Politics, political scientists David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann trace this distinction back to the basic makeup of each party’s political support: While the Democratic Party is a coalition of social groups, the GOP is primarily a vehicle for a single cohesive ideological movement. This difference has made the Democratic leadership more inclined toward cooperation and compromise, while Republican elected officials are pushed toward extremism and scorched-earth politics.

 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell agreed on a new $500 billion bipartisan deal for small businesses and hospitals on April 21, but without aid for states.
 Alex Wong/Getty Images
McConnell is arguably the most ruthless political operator in American politics.

In a healthy democracy, political disagreement is a matter of rivalry rather than existential struggle — allowing for divides that can be surmounted in times of national threat, sometimes even leading to unity governments where rival parties agree to share power.

But Republican antipathy toward Democrats has become an all-consuming hatred, its partisans viewing Democrats less as the loyal opposition than as internal enemies.

“Republican politicians from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump learned that, in a polarized society, treating rivals as enemies can be useful,” Harvard scholars Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky write in How Democracies Die. “Casting Democrats as not real Americans is a frontal assault on mutual toleration.”

This zero-sum vision — dominant, though not universally shared, among Republican leaders — is in tension with the very idea of American exceptionalism. It no longer makes sense to speak of an American “national character,” if it ever did, in a world where differences of ideology and identity take such categorical precedence over the things that bind the country together.

The country is locked in what I’ve termed a “cold civil war,” an all-consuming internal struggle playing out through its political institutions that is not in any way exceptional. It’s the sort of political warfare you see in severely polarized, failing democracies like Chile in the early 1970s or contemporary Poland.

Coronavirus exposes the threat of asymmetric polarization

The coronavirus crisis is a vivid demonstration of how the idea of the nation has been supplanted by a “partyocracy”: a government run for the benefit of the members of one party rather than the citizenship as a whole.

“The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the government or solve specific social problems,” Hopkins wrote in a recent post on his personal blog. “So perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that an array of subjects, from what medical treatment might help COVID patients to how important it is to take measures protecting the lives of the elderly, have been drawn into the perpetual political wars.”

In theory, this pandemic should be a catalyst for national unity — a crucible during which citizens come together to make shared sacrifices and beat back a common enemy. That’s the tone German Chancellor Angela Merkel has struck in her widely hailed public discussions of the virus, leading to a significant rise in her approval rating. In Canada, political scientists have documented nearly unprecedented levels of consensus among leaders from the most popular parties on the need for social distancing.

In the US, it’s a different story. When former President George W. Bush issued a call for nonpartisan cooperation earlier this week, Trump dismissed it, blasting his Republican predecessor for (allegedly) being insufficiently loyal to the Trump cause.

The impact of asymmetric partisan warfare can be felt across the American coronavirus response, going well beyond the Bush incident, McConnell’s “Blue State Bailouts” gibe, or the president’s use of ventilators as patronage in Colorado. Trump’s public pronouncements have been muddled, often contradictory, but he has frequently questioned the need for social distancing measures. He’s working hard to deflect blame for economic pain onto the governors (frequently blue staters) who imposed state-level lockdowns and, more broadly, to turn the crisis into a partisan affair.

In mid-April, he gave oxygen to the anti-social-distancing protests in states like Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota, tweeting “LIBERATE” in all caps. In early May, he wrote that “the Democrats are just, as always, looking for trouble. They do nothing constructive, even in times of crisis.”

 Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
More than 1,500 people gathered in Sacramento, California, asking for the opening of the economy, on May 1.

The explanation for the president’s divisiveness is, as always, almost purely political. Trump has done a poor job managing the coronavirus outbreak: Many of the cardinal failures, like PPE shortages and insufficient testing, can be blamed on a sluggish and inefficient federal response. The Trump administration seems to be treating this as a political damage control problem, exploiting hyperpartisanship to cover for its substantive failures rather than working full-tilt to address them on a policy level.

Trump believes in “owning the libs” as a matter of both political principle and strategy, convinced that turning everything into a war between Trumpists and liberals is a win for him in an election year — a strategy that McConnell and other leading national Republicans are all too happy to endorse. That’s especially true now that Trump’s pre-pandemic 2020 argument, that he delivered strong economic growth throughout his term, is no longer viable.

“He is worried about the impact of soaring unemployment numbers and severe economic contraction on his 2020 reelection bid,” the Washington Post reported in late March. “He remains fixated on the plummeting stock market, is chafing at the idea of the country remaining closed until the summer and growing tired of talking only about the coronavirus.”

Given this kind of signaling from the Republican Party’s leader, and no backlash from a national party that has bound up its fate with Trump, it’s no surprise that many Republicans at the state level adopted similarly irresponsible approaches. A recent working paper from five University of Washington researchers linked Republican governors’ reticence to impose distancing measures to the national political climate: The redder the state, the slower its governor was to act.

“All else equal, Republican governors and governors from states with more Trump supporters were slower to adopt social distancing policies,” the researchers write. “The most important predictors are political.”

Only eight states never issued stay-at-home orders, all of which have Republican governors. Five of those eight states — Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa, and South Dakota — saw mid-April increases in coronavirus cases well above the national norm. In late April and May, Republican-governed states pushed the envelope when it came to reopening; Georgia’s Brian Kemp has embraced a particularly aggressive timetable.

The result of the GOP’s partisan approach to coronavirus has been to fracture the country, embrace potentially harmful policies for political reasons at the national level, and create a patchwork of state-level responses that’s likely to facilitate wider virus spread.

To say the American response is a failure is somewhat imprecise. It’s more accurate to say that there is no overarching American response — and that this disunity has been disastrous.

Coronavirus and the reemergence of America

Does deep and asymmetric polarization, a structural problem that no one really has a plan for resolving, mean the country is doomed? Will America not only decline on the world stage, but suffer beyond all reason as a result of this pandemic?

The smart money is, as always, on dysfunction. Yet during this awful time, there have been some encouraging signs that Americans could do better — that there might be a path out of the hyperpartisan dystopia.

Early data during the pandemic showed that Republicans were generally taking coronavirus less seriously than Democrats. One study found that Republicans were considerably less likely than Democrats to change their personal behavior in response to the virus, seemingly for politically motivated reasons. “Partisanship is a more consistent predictor of behaviors, attitudes, and preferences than anything else that we measure,” the authors write.

But as the crisis has unfolded, things have started to look a little different — and more promising.

Some Republican governors, like Maryland’s Hogan and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, have fully embraced social distancing and public health best practices — even when it’s been inconvenient for the national party. Hogan in particular has been somewhat critical of Trump’s response, calling his anti-distancing tweets “unhelpful.”

 Ko Sasaki/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and his wife Yumi Hogan visit Japan in 2015. Hogan unilaterally purchased thousands of coronavirus test from South Korea and is using his state’s National Guard to prevent the federal government from seizing them.

In the past, Republicans clashing with Trump has signaled political doom for Trump’s enemy. But taking a strong line on social distancing seems to be helping these governors, not hurting them. In purple Ohio, DeWine boasts a roughly 75 percent approval rating — a significant improvement on his pre-virus numbers, and one of the highest bounces of any governor in the country.

These numbers reflect a striking level of consensus on the coronavirus among ordinary Americans, even as Republican elites push a divisive message. An Associated Press poll, conducted April 16-20, found that a majority of both Democrats (62 percent) and Republicans (59 percent) believe “the restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus are about right.” Twenty-two percent of Republicans said they went too far, while 19 percent said they didn’t go far enough.

A mid-April Morning Consult poll asked voters whether the country “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” An astonishing 81 percent agreed that it should — as did 72 percent of Republicans.

Another mid-April poll, from Yahoo News-YouGov, asked Americans how they felt about the anti-social-distancing protests promoted by President Trump and Fox News. Only 22 percent said they supported these protesters; 60 percent, by contrast, said they opposed them. Even a plurality of Republicans said they opposed them — 47 percent against, as compared to 36 percent in support.

A fourth poll, published in early May by the Washington Post, asked Americans if they think limits on “restaurants, stores, and other businesses” were appropriate, too restrictive, or not restrictive enough. Significant majorities of both Democrats (72 percent) and Republicans (62 percent) said they believe the current restrictions are appropriate.

These consistent numbers may help explain why the anti-distancing protests have been so anemic and poorly attended.

“Most Americans can look around and see what’s happening. They see people dying and suffering. They know this is a real problem,” Theda Skocpol, a scholar of social movements at Harvard, told my colleague Sean Illing. “So no, I don’t think [the anti-distancing movement] is going to be the next Tea Party.”

This represents a failure of the political division as practiced by Trump, McConnell, and Fox News. American citizens have not neatly split along partisan lines; the bulk of ordinary Republicans appears to be treating the crisis as a serious shared challenge rather than another front in the culture wars.

It’s tough to be confident in why this seems to be true. But one theory is that, as Skocpol suggests, it’s one of those political crises so overwhelming that no one really escapes its touch.

 Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
In a recent interview with Fox, President Trump claimed he’s responded well to the pandemic because he’s saved “hundreds of thousands of lives.”

In other Trump-era controversies, like Trump’s impeachment, the issue was abstract: Few American lives were directly and concretely affected by the president withholding military aid to Ukraine, hence the public’s responses fell along familiar partisan lines. But when you or someone you love falls deathly ill, or you’re worried about becoming ill yourself, it’s hard to credit a politician telling you that the social distancing cure is worse than the disease.

Nor is the attempt to paint the outbreak as a blue-state problem likely to succeed. Though the outbreak hit large blue cities like Seattle and New York first, the virus is making its way around the country.

A late April analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the rate of increases in coronavirus cases and deaths was higher outside of cities than it was in them. A more fine-grained study by Brookings’s William Frey found that the disease is becoming an increasingly suburban and rural problem.

“On March 29, four-fifths of high-prevalence county populations resided in the urban cores of large metropolitan areas,” Frey writes. “Among residents of counties which entered high-prevalence status between April 6 and April 12, for example, only 31% lived in urban core counties, while 45% lived in suburbs and 24% lived in small and nonmetropolitan areas.”

It is still possible that the coronavirus crisis will end up like most every other crisis in recent history. Eventually, the public could end up defaulting to a partisan lens.

“People who feel that the pandemic is going to ‘break the fever’ of the past couple decades — that it will finally drain public life of its malice, its addiction to remorseless conflict and conspiracy theory, its devil-take-the-hindmost nihilism — carry the burden of proof,” Politico’s John Harris writes.

The past few years have repeatedly vindicated such pessimism; we shouldn’t be surprised if 2020 ends up doing the same.

But there are at least glimmers of an alternative reality: one where Americans, shocked by the country’s failures during the coronavirus, troubled by the truth they’re seeing on the ground, actually start acting like a country. Maybe, in that world, we can start to talk about American exceptionalism again.


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