Libertarian

The Social-Distancing Culture War Has Begun

When I asked whether the virus had interfered with his lifestyle, Bret laughed. “Oh, I’m going to the shooting range tomorrow,” he replied.

Was he worried that his friends might disapprove if they found out?

“No,” he told me, “around here, I get much more of people saying, ‘Why don’t you go Saturday so I can go, too?’”

Terry Trahan, a manager at a cutlery store in Lubbock, Texas, acknowledged that a certain “toxic tribalism” was informing people’s attitudes toward the pandemic. “If someone’s a Democrat, they’re gonna say it’s worse,” he told me, “and if someone’s a Republican, they’re gonna say it’s bad, but it’s getting better.”

As an immunocompromised cancer survivor, Trahan said he’s familiar with commonsense social-distancing practices. But as a conservative, he’s become convinced that many Democrats are so invested in the idea that the virus will be disastrous that they’re pushing for prolonged, unnecessary shutdowns in pursuit of vindication.

Among experts, there is a firm consensus that social distancing is essential to containing the spread of the virus—and they warn that politicizing the practice could have dangerous ramifications. “This is a pandemic, and shouldn’t be played out as a skirmish on a neighborhood playground,” Dina Borzekowski, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, recently told Stat. (For the moment, at least, the scientists seem to have brought the president around: Yesterday, Trump announced he was extending social-distancing guidance until the end of April.)

Of course, not everyone who flouts social distancing is making a political statement. Many have to work because they can’t afford not to; others are acting out of ignorance or wishful thinking. Beyond personal behavior, there is a legitimate debate to be had about how to balance economic demands while combatting a global pandemic.

Still, the polarization around public health seems to be accelerating: In recent days, Republican governors in Alabama and Mississippi have resisted calls to enact more forceful mitigation policies. Polling data suggest that Republicans throughout the U.S. are much less concerned about the coronavirus than Democrats are. According to a recent analysis by The New York Times, Trump won 23 of the 25 states where people have reduced personal travel the least.

Some of this is likely shaped by the fact that the most serious outbreaks so far in the U.S. have been concentrated in urban centers on the coasts (a pattern that may not hold for long). But there are real ideological forces at work as well.

Katherine Vincent-Crowson, a 35-year-old self-defense instructor from Slidell, Louisiana, has watched in horror this month as businesses around her city were forced to close by state decree. A devotee of Ayn Rand, Vincent-Crowson told me Louisiana’s shelter-in-place order was a frightening example of government overreach.

“It feels very militaristic,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘What the hell, is this 1940s Germany?’”

But when we spoke, she seemed even more aggravated by the “self-righteous” people on social media who spend their time publicly shaming anyone who isn’t staying locked in their house. “It really reminds me of my kids who tattle on their siblings when they do something bad,” she said. “I’m a libertarian … I don’t really like being told what to do.”

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