An exploration into why COVID-19 is a political issue
On June 23rd, the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners in Palm Beach, Florida, voted to pass a mandate on masks. During this meeting, they had to listen to those who objected to the mandate. A woman, who didn’t disclose her name, had many choice words for the board, which included: “You’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these communist dictatorship orders…”
I have no doubt many of you have heard things along these lines before. That masks are a leftist ploy, or that wearing masks is unpatriotic, or that it’s a violation of rights. Be it on social media, the news or even outdoors, there is no lack of political discourse around masks.
But… why? Why are masks a political issue? Why do we assume that those who don’t wear masks are Trump-supporting Republicans? And that those who do are “liberals” or leftists?
You might think “Well… it’s because it is.” And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. According to a poll from Politico, 86% of Democrats support a mask mandate, whereas only 58% of Republicans do. According to a Forbes study, 18 out of the 19 states lacking a mask mandate are run by Republican governors. So, this does seem to be a partisan issue. But it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t have to be.
Humans long for a sense of belonging, and affiliating oneself with a political party can do just that. It’s not uncommon for people to defend their party in order to justify being a. However, according to a study by David Abrams, a Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at NYU, in times of uncertainty, people’s need to belong increases exponentially. Therefore, people are becoming more radicalized, and politics more polarized than ever. It’s now a matter of us vs. them. Republicans vs. Democrats. Liberals vs. Conservatives. Right vs. Left.
Republicans tend to be “anti-maskers” because their main representatives, including the President, are rarely seen wearing masks and often downplay the virus. So, to them, they’re just upholding their party’s values. They’re part of a group making a stand against authority and standing in solidarity with each other.
The same can also be said for Democrats who choose to wear a mask. Yes, they’re listening to science, but they’re also standing with their party. Standing for something with a group of people gives them an identity. According to Professor Abrams, those who do wear masks see it “as an act of altruism and a way of helping each other out.”
It’s become a growing trend in the United States for more and more non-political subjects to become politicized, like lattes becoming associated with liberals and bird-hunting with conservatives, as noted in the 2015 “Why do Liberals drink Lattes?” article in the American Journal of Sociology. Masks are but an extension of that during a very complicated and polarizing time, as noted by Daniel DellaPosta in a 2020 study in American Sociological Review.
“So what? Why is polarization bad? The other side is clearly wrong here! So they deserve whatever is coming their way.” That’s a polarized statement. As tempting as it can be right now to let tendencies take over and jump to bash a Democrat or a Republican for whether or not they wear a mask, it won’t solve anything.
Political polarization and the dehumanization of others only leads to further polarization, divide, and lack of understanding. And that leads to violence, as proven time and time again not only by several psychological studies, but by recent events as well. Headlines like “Woman punches teen boy in Walmart for not wearing face mask” and “Woman calls employees ‘Nazis’ as they ask her to leave their store for not wearing a mask” are becoming more and more prevalent.
You won’t change people’s beliefs by shaming them, by calling them idiots, by dehumanizing them. If anything they’re more likely to further put their foot down. But you can change their beliefs in other ways.
Beliefs change. Opinions change. People change.
Scott Liftman, a 50-year-old from Massachusetts, used to be an “anti-masker”until he read an article by Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus, and contacted her with some questions. After their conversation, Scott changed his mind, saying to Vox “I want to follow scientific principles, but I also want to exercise common sense. You never want to read something that just shames you. I really think that no two people are so different that they can’t find some common ground.”
I know we’re not all doctors like Julia Marcus is, but we’re still people. If we see someone not wearing a mask, instead of scolding them or insulting them, why not instead take a more careful and personal approach as suggested by Pamela Hieronymi, a Professor of Philosophy at UCLA who studies ethics and moral responsibility. She suggests we “presume that they didn’t mean any harm, and then interact on that basis. ‘Hey, did you know that masks can protect people and not wearing them will put me and others at risk?’”
The virus has already taken too many lives. Masks prevent it from taking more. If you know an “anti-masker”, then please, try humanizing and understanding them before approaching them. Or if you’re reading this and are against masks yourself, please, reconsider.
Leonardo Amaral is a film and photography visual art major who wants to warn you of the dangers of political polarization. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Carolyn Langer.