US vaccination success shows its divisions are exaggerated

Last September, nearly half of all American adults told the Pew Research Center that they would “probably” or “definitely” not accept a vaccine against Covid-19. More than four in ten Democrats were part of it.

It is only in retrospect that the scale of the initial US hesitation about vaccines is startling. At the time, it was entirely a nation lost in quackery, civic decline and the almost savage contempt of the elites.

It is difficult to know where this nation has gone. The United States has given at least one dose of the vaccine to 63% of adults, which involves millions of changes of mind (and a few bluffers to begin with).

President Joe Biden is aiming for 70% by July 4. Regardless of age, half of the total population is now partially vaccinated. With variants of the virus closer to herd immunity, there are still enough refusniks to matter. It is reckless to dismiss their once intimidating movement like a paper tiger. But the grand display of trust compliance and its threat to everything we “know” about this troubled country should not be ignored.

It’s time to entertain the exotic thinking that America is not its policy. The first hint of this epiphany came last year, when a lockdown with little to no peacetime precedent commanded not only broad obedience, but qualified majorities of assent.

Biden is president in large part because his predecessor Donald Trump bet on a silent plurality of “Don’t tread on me” types who never materialized. The dissent that there was – over the usefulness of masks, the wisdom of indoor gatherings – was real and deadly enough. But the “culture war” was essentially a title in search of substance on a national scale. Considering the tribalism of Red and Blue America, it should have been a lot worse.

Government audit

The pandemic itself was a government audit. Vaccination, at least in countries with sufficient doses, is a test of governability. It examines the extent to which voters themselves accept the facts, defer to distant authorities, and set standards of good citizenship for each other.

From this perspective, no rich country was supposed to do worse than a country in its third decade of vicious partisanship. Even those of us who don’t use the social media window on Hades fear for turnout rates in the United States. Instead, it’s Taiwan and other models of the Pacific, the signal for many gullible layers on Asian docility around the same time last year, that need to catch up.

The implications here are profound. If there is a mismatch between the noise of the American public square and the common sense of its mass behavior (what economists would call its revealed preferences), the former should worry us much less than it does. A country that can sometimes seem doomed to a violent rupture can be deceptively cohesive and governable. The lesson is as much for his external enemies as it is for anyone else. They should not take too much hope from the discordant policies of the United States.

It is difficult to push this argument far without whitewashing politics as a harmless side-show. It is not. He’s killing people on Congress grounds. Judging by the Republican Party’s moral arc, there is no respite in sight. But it is sometimes taken for granted that the public life of a nation dictates all of its social outcomes.

The evidence at the moment suggests that this is not necessary. At least when the stakes are existential Americans seem capable of outdoing their politics.

‘Biggot of the weekend’

The mystery is how. The Scots have a line for a Celtic or Rangers fan who screams sectarian abuse before resuming an irreproachable life. He’s your “weekend fanatic”. This is just one example of our species’ strange talent for compartmentalization. Many people who tell pollsters that Israel participated in the September 11 attacks in the United States are going through their mundane day.

Despite all its poison, American politics appear to be very compartmentalized. Millions of people use it as an outlet for a gross or tribal part of themselves. But most seem perfectly capable of coping when normal life, and especially their practical interests, call for it.

Their avowed cynicism did not prevent multitudes from giving in to two technocratic demands in a year: the first on their freedom, the second on their very persons. That a large minority of Democrats and Republicans say they would care for their child to marry someone from the other party does not erase society in any meaningful way.

Seen this way, even the fact that most Republicans think the 2020 election was stolen is frightening, yes, but not proof of trouble to come. What matters is how much they have that belief and what, if anything, they would do to act on it. September’s anti-vaxxers seemed to want it at the time. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021


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About Joaquin Robertson

Joaquin Robertson

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