This is an edition of David French's newsletter, The Third Rail. Sign up here.
One of the most important moments of my life was the day in 2016 when I divorced the Republican Party. I didn’t divorce conservatism. I divorced the GOP. It helped change the way I view the world.
No, that didn’t mean I became a Democrat. I didn’t switch jerseys from red to blue. I just took my jersey off and didn’t put another one on. At the time I mainly felt sad, but it was something I was compelled to do—after spending years arguing that personal character wasn’t just an optional aspect of my political ideology but rather essential to the entire enterprise of conservatism, I just couldn’t in good conscience belong to a party that would nominate a man like Donald Trump.
Since my political divorce, however, I’ve been able to see more clearly the nature of partisanship itself, including the way in which it distorts our view of the world. To use a legal analogy, at a fundamental level, partisanship converts a person from a judge (one who decides among competing arguments, hopefully without bias) to a lawyer (one who steadfastly and relentlessly defends their client, almost regardless of the facts).
The partisan is prone to act like a lawyer, and the party is their client. He or she picks a side, and then—convinced that the common good or social justice is ultimately served by their triumph—behaves exactly how lawyers behave. Are there facts that make your “client” (Democrats or Republicans) look good? Emphasize those facts. Do negative developments harm your case? Find a way to change the focus.
It’s the lawyer mentality that often leads to the abject hypocrisy and double standards that so often dominate our discourse. Bill Clinton has an affair in the Oval Office? Well, if he’ll lie to his wife, then he’ll lie to you. Donald Trump has an affair with a porn star and pays hush money to keep it out of the news? Then “this thing with Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody’s business.” Who said such contradictory things? The same man, Franklin Graham, condemning Clinton and, years later, defending Trump.
To use a less sordid but more immediately salient example, it’s often simply spectacular to watch arguments shift back and forth on the filibuster. Are you a partisan and out of power? Then the filibuster is often your friend, a bulwark against majoritarian tyranny and injustice. If you’re partisan and in power, then the filibuster is antithetical to democracy. Of course, not every politician or political operative is so crass, but many are.
The operative rule of partisanship is that once any issue becomes partisan, the lawyer model locks in. The two sides double down on their positions, amplify supporting facts, and deny, minimize, or rationalize negative information.
That’s a long windup to a very short pitch—to understand America’s COVID debate, you have to understand that it is often (not always) far more partisan than it is scientific. Red and blue took competing positions on the coronavirus almost from the very onset of the crisis, and those competing visions have distorted debate ever since.
The division is easy to state and readily observable in the real world. From the moment that Donald Trump said—almost exactly two years ago, on January 22, 2020—–that COVID is “one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” a pattern was set. Republicans minimized the threat of COVID, and Democrats did the opposite.
Not all Republicans and not all Democrats, of course, but the numbers and the patterns of behavior don’t lie. As The New York Times’ David Leonhardt wrote last year (relying on a Gallup and Franklin Templeton survey of 35,000 Americans), “both liberals and conservatives suffer from misperceptions about the pandemic—in opposite directions. ‘Republicans consistently underestimate risks, while Democrats consistently overestimate them.’”
I live in Tennessee—in the heart of Red America—and the evidence of Republican risk-benefit analysis is all around me, for good and ill. Despite the reality that one of the most well-documented facts of this pandemic is that vaccines offer profound protection against hospitalization and death, there’s a much higher degree of vaccine refusal here, especially in the rural counties not far from my home.
Vaccine refusal is costing lives. It’s taking a terrible toll, and that toll has hit close to home. It’s cost the lives of people I know, including just last week a friend of 35 years, a person I met on one of the first weekends of my freshman year of college.
My experience isn’t unusual. I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to see person after person fall to a virus when a safe and effective shot would have almost certainly not just saved their life but also likely saved them from even having a serious case of the disease.
The best available evidence demonstrates a dreadful reality: Vaccine reluctance and death rate have correlated with votes for Trump. Since the date when vaccines "widely became available," the higher the percentage of Trump votes, the lower the vaccine uptake and the higher the death rate. As NPR reported in December: "People living in counties that went 60% or higher for Trump in November 2020 had 2.73 times the death rates of those that went for Biden. Counties with an even higher share of the vote for Trump saw higher COVID-19 mortality rates."
These numbers may change as the virus persists and mutates, but the toll of vaccine refusal is and has been dreadful. By underestimating the threat of COVID, right-leaning Americans made no ordinary political mistake. They made a mistake with life-and-death consequences for hundreds of thousands, and the sadness and grief caused by that mistake is crippling families across the land.
What in my community went right? Most important, our kids were (mostly) in school. While they closed in March 2020—when we were at a stage of maximum uncertainty about the true extent of the danger from the virus—schools were open again in the fall. Tennessee kids as a rule were in classrooms when so many of their blue-state peers were still online and at home.
My youngest daughter didn’t miss a single day of the 2021–22 school year. Partly through sheer luck and partly because red-state audiences were attuned to any evidence supporting the thesis that COVID wasn’t serious, our state recognized that children were (thankfully) much less vulnerable to the virus. Moreover, we recognized that—as Brown University’s Emily Oster wrote all the way back in November 2020—“the best available data suggests that infection rates in schools simply mirror the prevalence of covid-19 in the surrounding community—and that addressing community spread is where our efforts should be focused.”
Tennessee’s masking legacy is more mixed. My community never indulged in unnecessary outdoor masking, but scorning indoor masking—before the vaccine and in situations where adults were in close contact—was folly. Of course masks (especially cloth ones) weren’t foolproof, but they were better than nothing, and the burden of wearing a mask on any given person (outside the rarest of instances) was slight.
The sad reality is that well before the vaccine, masks became a political and cultural marker. In communities like mine where masking was mostly optional, consistently wearing a mask signaled not just that you were a COVID dissenter, but likely a political dissenter as well. No true member of MAGA nation would wear a “face diaper” (yes, that was common language). For much of the pandemic, you could quickly judge the political composition of a community by the presence or absence of masks. That’s how much partisanship warped our pandemic debate.
So where are we now? All too many partisan COVID “lawyers” are still hard at work. For example, the vaccines themselves (not just mandates) are still up for debate. On Tuesday, Tucker Carlson hosted a COVID-vaccine skeptic named Alex Berenson on his top-rated program. Berenson called mRNA vaccines “dangerous and ineffective” and called for them to be removed from the market. Carlson said it was “demonstrable to anyone who lives in this country” that the vaccines were ineffective.
This is dangerous nonsense. But aside from a few notable conservative voices, the right-wing world lets Carlson slide. Why? Because partisans by their very nature focus on the excesses of the other side. Why take on Carlson’s nonsense when children are forced to eat outside in the cold at a school district in Washington? Or when a school CEO in Maryland suggests kids should be masked until “COVID no longer exists”?
Lest there be any confusion or claims of wrongful moral equivalence, I think encouraging vaccine refusal is orders of magnitude more problematic and consequential than excessive or theatrical masking and distancing rules. But I also think it’s terribly wrong to minimize the harm done to children by unnecessary and excessive school closings.
It’s vital to say all those things, without regard to the underlying partisan COVID narratives. There was a time when we knew so little about COVID that it was easy to make mistakes. And while there is of course still more to learn, we know enough to decisively shed the red and blue biases that have distorted our COVID response for far too long.
Yet we can’t seem to turn the page. Why? Because this I know after a long career in law and a long life as a partisan: Lawyers aren’t as cynical as the public tends to believe, and neither are partisans. They’ve identified so fully and completely with their clients and their positions that they’ve absorbed their position down to the very marrow of their bones. And they’re so committed to victory that any concession is viewed as a surrender to the dark forces that want to destroy our country.
But it’s necessary that more Americans pry themselves away from their partisan identity. We can’t go all in for red or blue. We need more judges and fewer lawyers. Make the partisans convince you. But in the case of COVID, the judgment is already clear. It’s way past time to end COVID partisanship. The fundamental facts of the disease are known. They don’t fully conform to either of America’s competing pandemic narratives, and the longer we cling to either of those narratives, the more we’ll harm the nation—and people—we love.