Health care workers face off with protesters demanding an end to the stay-at-home order in Denver, Colorado, April 2020
Reuters / Alyson McClaran

The response to the novel coronavirus pandemic in the United States has been delayed and disjointed for many reasons. Perhaps one of the most pernicious factors has been the quick evolution of the pandemic into a partisan issue. By early March, a split had emerged among elected officials, influential media personalities, and ordinary voters: many Democrats came to view the virus as an existential threat, whereas Republicans tended to perceive and portray the concerns of public health officials as dramatically overblown. Although partisan finger-pointing about the effectiveness of government disaster response is common in many countries, the United States has been an outlier in the extent to which the parties have disagreed, from the very beginning, about whether and how to combat the virus.

Perhaps the most common explanation for this phenomenon was that President Donald Trump, preoccupied with his reelection and the stock market, engaged in wishful thinking during the crucial early months of the outbreak, and his loyal media surrogates and supporters in the Republican Party followed along. Political scientists have also pointed to deeper partisan differences—for instance, in attitudes toward science, expertise, and the role of government. Such factors may have indeed played a role, but as the United States tries to find a path forward, another factor will continue to stand in the way: a tragic collision of viral spread and political geography.  

The current crisis is a tragic collision of viral spread and political geography.  

The two-party system in the United States is arranged around a population density divide. The Democrats first became an urban party when they mobilized manufacturing workers in the New Deal era. With every new policy question that has arisen since then, from civil rights to abortion to guns to investment in science, the Democratic Party has taken up the interests of urban residents, whereas Republicans have advocated for groups that increasingly dwell in the outer suburbs and rural areas. As a result, the parties have become collections of geographic interest groups. This geographic sectionalism has become so severe that Republicans often do not bother fielding candidates in urban legislative districts. With a few exceptions, Republican officials have very little electoral incentive to be concerned with the interests and priorities of voters in big, overwhelmingly Democratic cities—precisely the places where COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, first appeared and ravaged populations most intensely. By March 16, when counties in the San Francisco Bay Area became the first to order their citizens to shelter in place, 76 percent of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 had taken place in urban counties where over 60 percent of the 2016 presidential vote went to the Democratic candidate. Very few deaths had been recorded in counties with Republican majorities.

As a result, the pandemic quickly became just another issue in the urban-rural partisan divide, not unlike gun control or immigration. In downplaying the danger of the virus and declining to act, many Republican officials were faithfully representing the views of their nonurban voters, for whom the virus was, in the crucial early weeks of March, a distant, abstract threat. These officials also faced opposition to social-distancing measures from business owners and workers whose revenues and incomes would be threatened by the kinds of restrictions being placed on economic activity in urban centers. As a result, when Democratic, urban America began to shut down, people in suburban, exurban, and rural Republican strongholds were still carrying on with business as usual: going to work, sending their children to school, and crowding into restaurants.

Social and cultural factors reinforced this dynamic. Urban Americans tend to have large social networks that extend to other cities and countries, which allowed many people in unaffected cities to learn directly about the impact of the virus throughout March. Rural Americans, on the other hand, tend to have smaller, more isolated social networks, and much of the information about the dangers of the virus came from untrusted media outlets based in coastal cities. Moreover, recent research has revealed that rural Americans have developed a sense of obligation that is more focused on local in-groups, in contrast with a more universalistic sense of moral obligation found among urban dwellers. As a result, rural officials had little incentive to worry about what seemed like a city problem.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Since the U.S. federal government failed to develop and distribute test kits in the months after the virus first emerged in China, contact tracing and the isolation of infected individuals were not possible. The only viable strategy was to shut down social and economic activity in a way that was exceptionally costly for the economy, and potentially for the careers of the elected officials who enacted them. Even Bill de Blasio, the Democratic mayor of New York City—which quickly became the epicenter of the pandemic—had a hard time pulling the trigger. But ultimately, as the virus was spreading in dense cities, the relevant governors, mayors, and county commissioners had no choice. Because of the urban incidence of the virus, most of these were Democrats, but they were also joined by a handful of Republicans who had won in more densely populated settings, including the governors of Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio and the mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The pandemic has become just another issue in the urban-rural partisan divide, not unlike gun control or immigration.

Because of the nature of American federalism and the decentralization of public health policy decisions within states, Trump and most Republican governors had a different political strategy available exclusively to them: since the public health threat appeared to be concentrated in big cities, the obvious strategy was to let Democratic governors, mayors, and county commissioners implement these potentially unpopular measures, thereby “owning” the resulting economic downturn—and perhaps the deaths as well. The Trump administration has articulated an unusually expansive view of executive power; the president at one point declared that he enjoyed “total authority” on the issue of reopening the economy. Yet during the crucial early period of the pandemic, the federal executive branch encouraged states and counties to choose their own mitigation policies and even to bid against one another for equipment, limiting itself to activities such as signing checks and holding press conferences.

The same blame-avoidance strategy was equally attractive at the state level. The GOP-led state government of Texas suspended its running battle against the independent authority of cities such as Austin and Dallas, deferring to Democratic officials there to issue and enforce shutdowns. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis defended his lack of action as a “surgical” approach that imposed shutdowns only in more densely populated areas that were governed by Democrats. However, what made sense as a political strategy made little sense as public policy. Given the ability of citizens to cross county and state boundaries in order to eat at restaurants or go to the beach, this uncoordinated patchwork approach to shutdowns was destined for failure.  

THE VIRUS AND THE VOTERS

Incentives started to change in late March, as deaths from the virus began to shift from overwhelmingly Democratic urban counties to more competitive suburban and exurban counties. As COVID-19 spread to suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, and after the policies enacted in places such as California proved successful, the partisan divide faded somewhat, and officials in nonurban areas reluctantly and belatedly embraced weaker versions of the policies that cities had put in place much earlier. However, the long incubation period and lack of testing outside of metro areas meant that some holdout officials may have waited too long, including some in places with extremely vulnerable populations and an underdeveloped health infrastructure.

The geographic spread of the virus has corresponded to some nascent convergences in the attitudes of Democratic and Republican survey respondents about the dangers of the virus and the importance of social distancing, providing perhaps a glimmer of hope for a newfound sense of common purpose in the difficult days ahead. However, there are powerful forces pushing toward further polarization. Partisan differences in behavior and attitudes related to the virus have not disappeared, and the majority of deaths are still occurring in poor urban neighborhoods.

Moreover, the parties’ geographic bases will likely push them in opposite directions in the debate about how and when to reopen businesses. A largely rural movement opposed to government-mandated social distancing is taking shape, especially among business owners facing ruin. In the short term, perceptions of a tradeoff between public health and economic recovery will likely be different for rural Republicans and for members of the urban Democratic coalition, which includes minorities working in the riskiest service-sector jobs as well as educated professionals who can telecommute. In the longer term, it is possible that the battle lines will change dramatically if herd immunity develops in cities but not rural areas.

What is certain is that the confluence of viral and political geography in the United States will continue to undermine decision-making and policy implementation. The pandemic has both clarified and exacerbated the already high cost of having a party system shaped by geographic sectionalism. 

  • JONATHAN RODDEN is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.