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COVID-19 Coverage

Researchers Say That The Debate Over The Coronavirus May Become More Violent


The coronavirus has no political bias, but the reaction to the pandemic has gotten political. In some quarters, response measures like social distancing and wearing masks have become litmus tests for political identity. NPR's Hannah Allam has been reporting on how the pandemic is inflaming an already divided country. She joins me now. Hey, Hannah.


CHANG: So, I mean, it goes without saying that political divisions were already pretty bad before the coronavirus. So just take us through what you see happening to those divisions now.

ALLAM: That's right. I mean, the kind of polarization that's taken hold in recent years is way beyond the old Republican-Democratic divides, the debates over policies and issues. Social scientists say it's now about identity and these competing visions of what it means to be an American. And there's pressure to be all in for one camp or the other. And in such a hyperpartisan climate, of course, the pandemic was going to be politicized and exploited in the case of extremist groups that are trying to use the fear and the chaos to their advantage. But even setting aside the extremist fringe, we've seen a really nasty turn in the political fights over when and how to reopen, about stay-at-home orders and this posturing on masks that extends all the way to the White House.

CHANG: Yeah. Let's take masks, for example. How have masks become a symbol of this polarization that you're talking about right now?

ALLAM: Well, there are lots of reasons why people mask or don't mask. But for many, it's become another signifier of political identity. There is a sector of society that just refuses to mask. There are memes about it. It's for the weak. It's government overreach. It's mind control. And some of the symbolism from that comes from the very top, from President Trump. I spoke to Rachel Kleinfeld at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She studies polarization and violence. She says even the mask itself is kind of a flashpoint now, especially in an election year. And Trump is on the record saying that wearing a mask is not for him. And Kleinfeld argues that that stance sends a powerful message.

RACHEL KLEINFELD: Trump recognizes that by talking about masking in a certain way, he can play on an identity and its an identity of viability versus fear, an identity of urban versus rural, an identity of race even, given who's being hit by the virus. And he can do all those things by triggering something that was not polarizing before, which is whether or not you wear a mask in public.

CHANG: OK. Well, given these heightened tensions, how concerned do you think we should be about these frustrations turning into something bigger?

ALLAM: Well, we're already seeing some violence related to the pandemic response. And I'm talking about beyond the guys with guns showing up to the state capitols. It's low level and it's isolated, but it's still pretty chilling. A shooting at a McDonald's, breaking the arm of a Target employee, the beating of a 7-Eleven clerk - all related to enforcing distancing measures. And there are stories every day about intimidation around whether you do or don't mask. Right now, those are extreme reactions. They're not the norm. The majority of Americans are abiding by stay-at-home orders and masking when required. But the worry is polarization festers, and if left unchecked, it has a way of spilling into the streets. I talked to Tim Phillips about that risk. He runs the nonprofit Beyond Conflict. It studies polarization and global conflicts, and they have a report coming out soon that finds that Americans are polarized but not as polarized as they think, that both sides sort of overestimate how much mutual disdain there is. So, yes, Phillips is concerned, but he says it's important to keep things in perspective. Here he is.

TIM PHILLIPS: When we see the armed militia in Michigan, when we see people sort of defying the police, not just mayors and governors, to open up their stores or open up other locations, we tend to think that that's representative of the other side, that they must all think that way. And yet there's polling in the last two weeks, last week, in the United States that showed that across the Republican-Democratic divide, majority of Americans recognize that there's a public health crisis, and we have to do something about it.

ALLAM: So he's saying it's a challenging moment but not a hopeless one.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Hannah Alam. Thank you, Hannah.

ALLAM: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.