Did you know that if you’re a Democrat, you’re more likely to be worried about the COVID-19 pandemic than if you’re a Republican? That’s what a poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found in March 2020.
- Nearly 80 percent of Democrats believed that family members would contract the virus while only 40 percent of Republicans thought so.
- Furthermore, 56 percent of Democrats expected their lives to change in major ways because of the pandemic while only 26 percent of Republicans predicted such changes.
- As a result, three-fifths of Democrats but less than a third of Republicans planned to continue avoiding large public gatherings, such as sporting events.
These differences along political party lines might also explain why almost three-quarters of Democrats wear face masks or scarves in public while just over half of Republicans do so.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread throughout the United States, Americans have defined themselves more and more by their alliance with one of the two major political parties or to one of the smaller parties, including the Democratic Socialists of America and the Libertarian Party. There have been fervent partisan protests related to the pandemic in public and debates in Congress. Issues include not only the best ways to treat and ultimately prevent the virus but also how to help the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs or who worry about getting sick, if they do go to work. Given that the House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans, it is very difficult to pass legislation at all. And few people are fully satisfied by the legislation that does pass.
Congress is not alone in being sharply divided along partisan political lines. Since President Donald J. Trump has left most decision-making power in the hands of states, rather than adopt national responses to COVID-19, the divisions seen in Congress are also present in many states. As a result, policies vary from state to state. For example, Republican governors have tended to open businesses earlier than Democratic governors, and some states, such as Wisconsin, have seen very acrimonious clashes between a Democratic governor and a Republican state legislature. Governor Doug Burgum differed from most other Republican leaders when he asked North Dakotans to wear a mask, saying, “If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in.”
The Framers of the Constitution would be dismayed by the level of partisanship today. They were suspicious of political parties, which they defined as “factions” that were committed more to their own selfish interests than to “the public good.” James Madison, for instance, considered factions dangerous because one group could organize to take away the liberties of another group.
In the presidential election of 1800, however, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ran against each other representing two different political parties, the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. The Federalists were so opposed to Jefferson that the country seemed to be on the brink of civil war—just a decade after the Constitution was ratified. So, the acrimony we see around us today is not new in American politics.
Parties were considered an unfortunate bug of our political system until the middle of the nineteenth century. Martin Van Buren, who served as governor of New York, a US senator, secretary of state, vice president, and then president from 1837 to 1841, wrote a book explaining why political parties—especially his own Democratic Party—were important. He argued that they provided a way to resolve the great debates facing Americans and to draw people together as active citizens. This allowed ordinary people to organize against threats presented by wealthy elites who wanted to make decisions on their own, regardless of popular opinion. “We must always have party distinctions,” he wrote, and “political combinations between the inhabitants of the different states are unavoidable.”
Van Buren did not get his wish that the Democratic Party would dominate American politics forever. At times, the Republican Party has dominated. Today, the parties are locked in bitter competition, each enjoying support of roughly half the public. No one could have predicted that the arguments over wearing masks and opening bowling alleys would become highly partisan.
Which do you think is more accurate—Madison’s fears about “factions” and political parties or van Buren’s view that they’re necessary?