The challenge of keeping America on the same page
Why it’s so hard to create a consensus on the coronavirus response
Here in my home state of Michigan, as everywhere in the country during this crisis, we have been on a roller-coaster ride. Early on, we were one of the hotspots. I remember being told at my work that classes would be held online for the balance of the semester. In one weekend, I had to transform my classes from a traditional lecture into a virtual classroom. And I had to do this while my grandson could no longer go to his daycare.
The lockdown order came just days after we had celebrated my grandson’s fifth birthday with a party with about twenty guests. Shortly thereafter, many of us got sick. Was it the coronavirus? Who knows.
It was surreal around here after the lockdown started. Once busy streets were abandoned. People moved tentatively around the supermarket where the shelves were largely bare, quietly avoiding each other. The hospital down the street set up a big tent for triage in its parking lot. It seemed like we were living in the apocalypse. Or maybe a very realistic horror movie.
We were fortunate to have strong leadership here in Michigan. Our newly-elected governor, Gretchen Whitmer, took the bull by the horns. She relied upon guidance from scientists and acted aggressively. In the process, she was attacked by President Trump as “that woman from Michigan.” Trump supporters dressed as paramilitary troops and carrying automatic weapons held the state capital in fear, generating international headlines.
Despite the whining of a vocal minority, Whitmer’s decisive action has earned her high approval ratings from Michigan residents. Indeed, her visibility through this crisis helped launch her into consideration to be Biden’s running mate. Michigan’s infection rate went from an unsustainable rate to less than 1 percent.
But how soon we forget. After earning widespread praise for her strong action, even from the White House, the realities of what it will take to continue containing the coronavirus are getting on people’s nerves. Like many families, we are wondering what will happen with school. Our grandson is starting kindergarten this fall. For him, virtual classes really won’t work. But yet, we want to be safe and responsible. What are parents to do? What will happen? Nobody seems to have a good answer.
As it turns out, the New York Times did an analysis of coronavirus rates in counties nationwide to determine which counties are ready to open schools and which are not. Fortunately, Oakland county, the county where I work and where my grandson will be going to school, is appropriate for a partial reopening of schools. Unfortunately, Macomb county, where I live, is not in such good shape, as is much of the country where there is currently pressure to reopen schools.
To be sure, what to do about schools in this environment is a fraught question, and many sides of the debate have good points. One can understand the concern of teachers and school staff over being exposed. Children have been shown to be carriers of the disease even as they have a lower infection rate. At the same time, parents have seen their lives seriously disrupted. The impact upon women has been particularly devastating, and they “may well be facing a generational wipeout of mothers’ careers,” according to Joan C. Williams in the New York Times.
So here in Michigan, as in most states, we face at least three barriers to a rational discussion over the school reopening controversy. First, people’s views are colored by their own personal interests. Not terribly surprisingly, research in psychology has shown that people will change their moral positions based upon their financial self-interest. As a result, mothers struggling with the challenge of balancing the demands of their workplace against the educational needs of their children will view reopening the schools as a moral imperative. On the other hand, teachers afraid for their own health will devalue the concern of mothers, prioritizing instead their own needs. You can imagine that a discussion between two people driven by such differing self-interests will not be productive.
Second, our political ideologies have become associated with our identities. This is why the debate over masks has become so fraught. An easy way for Democrats to identify each other is whether they are wearing a mask. On the other hand, when a person refuses to wear a mask in public, fellow MAGAers can identify that person as part of their tribe. The resistance to wearing masks comes from a desire to identify with their group. As a result, no amount of logic will convince a Trump supporter to don a mask since that action would be tantamount to abandoning their tribe.
Third, people are notoriously bad at seeing the big picture. Their judgments are based upon the circles in which they live. That’s why polling is so essential for political campaigns, and why big data is so important to marketers. If I had a dollar for every person who told me that “I don’t know anybody who is supporting Trump/Clinton/Biden/take your pick,” I would be a rich man. It’s like when my daughter was shocked to find out what a small percentage of Americans smoke (15.5 percent in 2016). After all, all her friends smoke.
This problem has become a stumbling block to rational discussion about coronavirus policy a number of times. When the virus was localized in New York, California and Michigan, it was easy for people living in the rest of the country to think it was not a big deal. Now that the virus is mostly under control in Michigan and exploding in the rest of the country, people in Michigan are sanguine about it.
“I barely know anybody who got coronavirus, and even for people who did, it was no big deal,” said one parent I saw at my grandson’s daycare. “I talk to people at hospitals, and they say there are barely any coronavirus cases,” said another. One of my wife’s Facebook friends posted that she thinks coronavirus is a hoax because she doesn’t know anyone who has had it. These are examples of where our judgment is leading us astray.
Psychologists have a word for these intellectual blinders we all have: cognitive biases. Anyone who works in politics, marketing, or public relations has to work hard to avoid being led astray by these mental short cuts.
I could have argued with those well-meaning parents. I could have pointed out that the reason we see a lower level of coronavirus cases in Michigan hospitals is because we went through the restrictive lockdown, and because of the measured approach we have taken to reopening. I could have pointed out that if we behaved as irresponsibly in reopening as did Arizona, Florida or Georgia that we would be facing record levels of cases as these states are now. Do I think such arguments would have had an impact? No.
You see, these parents are worried about what they will do with their children come the fall, when they can no longer send their kids to daycare, they have to work, and school is closed. Some of these parents are Trump supporters, who believe white Christians are being marginalized and that Trump is standing up for them. And to be fair, some of these parents just aren’t seeing any evidence of the coronavirus around them. As a result, my arguments based upon data would not comport with their predispositions. This unwillingness to acknowledge information that conflicts with your beliefs has also been given a name by psychologists: confirmation bias. And it is everywhere.
The United States is a huge, diverse country. Certain imperatives may seem obvious to us, and we might have trouble understanding why everyone doesn’t agree with our views. The problem, though, is that people’s mental predispositions will not allow them to accept these views, and so they go through intellectual gymnastics to justify the beliefs they already have. As long as the United States is so diverse, that dynamic will stand in the way of us developing a real national consensus on just about anything.