The coronavirus crisis once seemed to be the kind of gut-wrenching shock that would pull together a politically divided nation. Increasingly, though, it is pulling the nation apart along familiar lines.
To see why, start by looking at how the pandemic’s effects are falling along partisan lines, leaving people on both sides of the red/blue divide now feeling they are bearing unfair burdens.
Political power in the country’s states today is almost evenly split between the two parties: 26 have Republican governors, 24 have Democratic governors. Yet the coronavirus’s effects aren’t even close to falling evenly between red and blue states.
Two-thirds of confirmed coronavirus cases are in states with Democratic governors. When states are measured by the sheer number of coronavirus cases, six of the top seven have Democratic governors. Together, those six blue states have about half of the nation’s cases, though only about a third of its population.
Coronavirus deaths tell a similar story. Eight of the nine states with the most deaths due to the virus are states with Democratic governors. When measured by deaths per capita, eight of the top nine states also have Democratic governors.
Obviously, the virus isn’t picking partisan sides. It moves without regard to borders or political affiliation. It just happens that more of the blue states have densely populated metro areas, heavily used mass transit systems and colder climates, which help the virus spread more easily. In some cases, they also have older populations more vulnerable to it.
These aren’t partisan distinctions. Massachusetts with its Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has been hit as hard as its Northeastern neighbors.
Nor are the state-by-state discrepancies necessarily a sign of how well or how badly governors are handling the outbreak. Certainly some will be judged to have acted better than others, but mostly they are dealing the hand that nature and the gods of disease handed them.
Inevitably, though, this uneven distribution of disease has led to uneven political reactions about its burden. Red states feel they are being hit harder than justified by a national economic shutdown that, to them, simply feels more acute than the problem it is addressing. It’s no surprise, then, that the debate over how quickly to reopen the economy is both an emotional one, and is falling along partisan lines.
“A red-state governor is losing his business in exchange for blue-state lives,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at a Brookings Institution seminar last week. “So for him, opening up is a no-brainer, which is sort of why it is happening.”
He added: “It is a lot to ask those governors to kill their businesses and their GDP for people who live far away, and who they may not even like very much.”
At the same time, blue-state leaders are starting to feel that, despite all the “we’re all in this together” sentimentality heard early in the crisis, that feeling isn’t prevailing today—particularly not in the U.S. Senate.
The states hit hardest by the virus are suffering the double whammy of lost tax revenues as economic activity grinds to a halt as well as skyrocketing costs for health care. These states’ finances, obviously, are being hit hardest, and they are seeking more help from Washington to cope, on top of billions of dollars Congress already has approved. And the Democratic-controlled House voted last Friday to do just that—to provide almost a trillion dollars more in a new aid package.
But that package is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate, whose leadership has characterized additional aid as a “blue-state bailout” of badly run states and deeply indebted public pension programs in which they have little interest. At one point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that troubled states could simply declare bankruptcy.
And it’s in the Senate where the imbalance between coronavirus impact and political clout is most acute. Those six hardest-hit blue states have more than half the country’s coronavirus cases, and a third of its population—yet only 12% of the votes in the Senate. It is almost a perfect formula for political tensions.
President Trump is straddling this red and blue divide. In sheer political terms, two of the hardest-hit states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, are critical to him because they happen to be swing states he carried in the 2016 election.
The president “is absolutely open” to negotiating more aid for states, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said in an interview Friday. But, he added, “the one thing he has taken off the table is fixing old problems” with new aid.
Mr. Deaton notes that the splits may narrow if cases continue to grow in red states. But for now, the ideal world in which red and blue sympathize with each other may be slipping further away.
Attorney General William Barr will deliver the Barbara K Olson Lecture at the Federalist Society’s 2019 National Lawyers Convention.