Political and Social Polarization and the Coronavirus Pandemic—A Real Danger We Can Do Something About

[This piece was written not just as a post for readers of this blog, but also for distribution to a wider audience.]

As a cultural psychiatrist and futurist, I endeavor to bring big-picture perspective to major social challenges. Last night I awoke disturbed by images of a situation that could put us in even greater risk with the challenges we now face. I saw that  unless we choose not to let it happen, the increased polarization we’ve witnessed in recent years could make the already dire consequences of the coronavirus pandemic significantly worse.  

I’ve written extensively about how we humans have tended to view issues in polarized terms even where concerns really don’t have sides. I’ve also described how continuing this tendency threatens to be our undoing. (My latest book Rethinking How We Think addresses how the most important questions before us as a species all require more mature, systemically-conceived answers). The pandemic confronts us in a particularly stark way with how political and social polarization today puts us at risk. That is the bad news. The good news is that this is a risk we can do something about. 

About a month ago, one of my clients asked if I expected to see partisan reactiveness in response to the coronavirus pandemic. I responded that in the short-term I was not too worried. We humans are often at our best when faced with emergencies. But I also shared that I was quite concerned about what we might see if the possibility of infection extended out over a significant time, which as a physician I think is highly likely. We could imagine we have won the battle as we begin to successfully “flatten the curve,” but in fact the larger part of the work remains to be done and the greatest challenges, at least psychologically, likely still lie ahead. Not falling for old ways of thinking and reacting that could significantly amplify dangers will be key to making it through successfully. 

The images that woke me up brought that added danger into high relief. We are beginning to see a fissure with how those on the political left are putting greatest emphasis on public health and preventing infection while those on the political right are tending more to emphasize jobs and the economy. Both are appropriate concerns. But if this fissure becomes more pronounced, the polarizing that could result might easily be experienced not just in terms of conflicting ideologies, but in terms of differing interpretations that could each be seen as having life-and-death implications. 

People on the Left could experience the words and actions of those on the Right as putting their lives at risk in a very immediate and personal sense (a person not adhering to social distancing is legitimately seen not just as a threat, but as fundamentally irresponsible and a potential cause of death). And people on the Right might experience the words and actions of those on Left as putting their lives at risk in the very real sense of livelihood. Emotionally the reaction could be just as strong, and just as immediate and personal (to have social distancing result in the loss of a business that has taken a person’s life to build could be felt not just like a death, but as a wholly unnecessary death, and thus in an important sense like murder). 

The challenge with the pandemic would be demanding enough even with the best of leadership (which we currently lack at least at a national level) and the best of science (which is now coming on board). The months (and perhaps years) ahead will require highly sophisticated, level-headed thinking able to address complex realities and adjust quickly to changing circumstances. If we let our fears complicate the situation by creating meaningless animosities and false narratives, our chances of getting through all of this in an at all healthy fashion are dramatically reduced. 

To be clear in what I am suggesting, the task is not just to somehow split the difference. While the needs expressed by each polar position are valid and important, the best strategies involve putting the strongest initial emphasis on health. This might seem like siding with the Left, but ultimately it is not. If we don’t start there, businesses will collapse however well we handle the economic side of the equation. Over time, the voices of the Left and Right more explicitly each have significance. As we attempt to reestablish robust and equitable societies, both health and economic concerns are each critically important to consider—indeed they can’t be separated.  

The need for this kind of one-hand-then-the-other, but ultimately two-handed response is not unique to a pandemic—the best policies with polarized and polarizing issues often depend on timing. Climate change requires first taking the issue seriously and recognizing that prompt action is essential—which might again look like siding with the Left. But later the values of the Right and the Left have equally essential roles as conversations turn to how our long-term choices can best result in a resilient and sustainable world. The appropriate order can go either way. With the 2008 financial collapse, most immediately, we needed to be sure banks did not fail—if they did, there would be total chaos. But very quickly, it was the financial needs of average citizens that as much or more required our attention.  

Not everyone needs such nuanced conceptual framing. My point here is simply that this time around we don’t have the luxury of business-as-usual partisan pettiness. At the very least we could end up being hateful and cruel toward one another exactly when perspective and compassion is most needed. At worst we could make choices that would result in many more deaths than would otherwise to be necessary.

So what is the task if we feel ourselves polarizing as we face the fears and difficult uncertainties of the pandemic? It is the same for individuals and for policy makers: First stop—then step back and take time to consider a larger picture. We are all in this together. And everyone’s well-being has multiple aspects that in the end need to be considered. 

As we look to the future, the pandemic can serve as a powerful teacher to help us leave behind ways of thinking that have ceased to serve us in all parts of our lives. If we can manage the needed greater maturity now, we may well look back on the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 as a critical time in which we took important steps toward the kind of greater human maturity that questions of all sorts will increasingly require going forward.