What 'Polarized' Means in a Pandemic

Pay attention to who's doing what to whom.

We're polarized and fragmented at the same time. Trump likes that ...

Political and social scientists have an interest in appearing aloof from the subjects of their research. So they, like their journalistic counterparts, created a vocabulary for talking about their work. Three words are now so ubiquitous as to be invisible. The US is “divided” and “polarization” is extreme due the historic levels of “partisanship.”

The problem, of course, is this vocabulary does more to misinform than it does inform. The major parties are in fact unequal in their influence. The Republicans can and will use democratic institutions to sabotage the American republic. The Democrats, meanwhile, mostly try defending these institutions, nurturing them when they can. The public, however, often doesn’t see the difference. As you often hear me say, most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics.

With hundreds dying daily, now’s not to time for a vocabulary of professional disinterestedness.

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Most of the time. That changes in times of war—and during a global outbreak of the new coronavirus, which can cause a deadly disease called COVID-19. The US is today expected to surpass 10,000 deaths since the pandemic first started. The president, meanwhile, has abdicated his responsibility to defend and protect the public. He’s either left governors to their own devices or he’s undermined their efforts. He holds daily White House briefings giving the illusion of leadership without its substance.

That might be enough for just enough Americans, but Donald Trump’s fortunes tend to suffer when two variables collide in an instant. One, when the public is highly engaged, as it is now. Two, when the topic of discussion is falsifiable—when Trump’s claims can be proven right or proven wrong—as when he said people should try hydroxychloroquine, a drug once used to treat malaria that might treat COVID-19.

Most people most of the time are disengaged. Most of Trump’s statements might be true or might be false. These are normal variables. But when the president of the United States encourages Americans to take a pill to counteract the effects of a lethal virus, that’s singularity. Either he’s right or he’s wrong. We all of us will see clearly which is which. Lots of people will recover and live, or they will suffer and die.

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Fact is, hydroxychloroquine (as well as chloroquine) can kill you. Poison Control: “Two old drugs used for malaria, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, are being studied for their potential to treat coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19). Side effects from these drugs can be very serious and include irregular heart rhythms that can result in death.”

Don’t believe it? An item from Live Science: “An Arizona man is dead and his wife is hospitalized after both of them self-medicated with chloroquine phosphate, a chemical used to treat fish for parasites, in an effort to ward off the novel coronavirus.” 

The couple, both in their 60s, listened to President Donald Trump tout chloroquinea decades-old antimalarial drug, as a very promising treatment for COVID-19 in a recent press conference. The woman, who asked not to be named, said she was familiar with the chemical because she used it to treat her koi fish (my stresses). 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s pandemic point man, keeps saying that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine might be beneficial but we can’t yet know. The president, meanwhile, keeps ignoring his public health advisor, or kneecapping him. “What do you have to lose?” he asked last week. “Take it. I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s their doctor’s choice ... Try it, if you’d like.”

What do “divided,” “polarization” and “partisanship” mean when a president suggests taking a experimental drug that might harm or kill you? It could mean that even death itself—the ultimate truth—is subject to Trump’s fatalist demagoguery. Lots of Americans will take chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine believing he really means well. Lots of Americans will find a scapegoat to blame for their dearly departed.

It could mean those words do more to conceal empirical reality than reveal it. Most Americans are now highly engaged. The president is therefore highly exposed. With lives on the line, now’s not to time for a vocabulary of professional disinterestedness. We need more than ever a vocabulary spelling out for all who’s doing what to whom.

—John Stoehr