August 6, 2021

Identity Politics and COVID: An American Tragedy.

by Hal Gershowitz

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That’s what it is, and that is what we are living through—an American tragedy.

Politics in America works best when it is, essentially, transactional; we get this, and they get that, and the country, in the process, gets something done. Traditionally, Americans who identified as Republicans were for lower taxes, free trade, and minimal government intrusion into the lives of the people and the country’s institutions. Democrats tended to favor government programs they believed improved the lives and working conditions of Americans. One Party leaned toward activist government, the other toward minimalist government. Republicans generally did not like regulations. Democrats tended to favor greater government oversight of business.  

All of that is entirely rational. The people sometimes would vote Republican, and sometimes they might vote Democrat. There was, traditionally, give and take, and on balance, the country progressed– sometimes more slowly or more rapidly than at other times, but, on balance, we progressed.

When identity politics replaces rational politics, as is the case today, one’s political party becomes one’s team rather than an expression of one’s leaning. When, during a public health crisis, a party’s leadership decides that resisting federal leadership is a winning issue, and the party’s rank and file follow suit, then identity politics rules the day. Individual rational thought is jettisoned while the rank and file wait to see what position the party takes.

And so, today, an astounding swath of the nation’s Republicans embrace the notion that Trump won the 2020 election because Trump told them so, that January 6th was no big deal, that wearing masks is a matter of personal choice, and, to an astounding extent, they have resisted vaccines, notwithstanding the devastating cost the anti-vaccinators are imposing on the country.

With identity politics, both Democrat and Republican party leaders often take positions simply because they constantly search for combat rather than compromise. Today, this is playing out on an immense scale as the country confronts the raging coronavirus pandemic–no mandates for masks or vaccinations, say the Republicans. There is to be no intrusion into the individual’s right to decide what they or their children may or may not do during a public health crisis. This is identity politics on steroids.

Imagine where we would be today if another generation of politicians decided to draw battle lines over requiring vaccines for smallpox, polio, chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Even something as simple as mandating the wearing of masks during a highly contagious pandemic has, ridiculously, emerged as a raging issue.

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Governor and presidential wannabe is playing his identity politics hand like a poker player who thinks he’s about to draw a royal flush. Or, perhaps, more to the point, like a politician who believes he can make resisting something as benign and sensible as wearing masks during a highly contagious and dangerous pandemic into a hallmark of Republican political identity.

That the pandemic is raging in Florida like no other state is, it seems, of little concern to DeSantis. He has threatened to withhold funding for schools requiring masks. His argument isn’t about public health and safety, but rather about the rights of parents to decide whether their children should or should not wear masks. This is, to him, about Republicans versus Democrats, anti-mask Republicans against pro-mask Democrats. It is identity politics at its worst.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker has mandated that masks will be required in all public and private schools following a rapid 10-fold increase in COVID infections in the state, and a rapid doubling of demand for intensive care in Illinois hospitals. As expected in this era of identity politics, Republican political operatives fell over themselves protesting the Governor’s mandate. Former Illinois State Sen. Paul Schimpf, a GOP candidate for governor, proclaimed with a straight face, the governor’s school mask mandate “usurps the authority of parents, school board members, and superintendents, further undermining confidence in the rule of law. I vehemently disagree with Governor Pritzker’s action today.”

Not to be outdone, Illinois Republican State Senator Darren Bailey, of downstate Xenia, in high dudgeon fulminated, “Anyone who wants to force masks on children or force a vaccine is a tyrant. I will fight to my last breath for freedom and common-sense policies. Call your school board members and tell them to stand up. Local control matters. Your voice matters; mental health matters,” he wrote. Talk about identity politics!

Meanwhile, back in Florida, DeSantis is playing with fire. Listen to former US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, “This surge that we’re going through right now has every potential to be — and already looks to be — the worst surge we’ve faced so far.” The Delta variant, which represents a growing threat to school-age children and which now accounts for nearly 95% of all coronavirus circulating in the US, is hitting DeSantis’s state particularly hard.

School children are catching COVID, and cases requiring hospitalization in Florida have begun to soar. Last Tuesday alone, 46 pediatric patients were admitted to Florida hospitals with COVID. So far, 4 million have been diagnosed with the disease nationally, and the actual number is, of course, higher because kids are often asymptomatic. They or their parents may not know they have COVID, but the kids can spread it to their parents and grandparents just fine. 72,000 cases were diagnosed among kids during the last week in July, an 84% increase from the prior week, when about 39,000 cases were reported. But DeSantis, grandstanding for the identity politics crowd, says mask-wearing in our public schools should be left to the parents and not the public health authorities or the school administrators. DeSantis has also blocked any business, government entity, or school district from requiring proof of vaccination. Thank goodness he wasn’t around when the polio vaccine became available.

I hasten to add that not all Republicans are playing the identity politics card. As Mayland Governor Larry Hogan, addressing the nation’s anti-vaccine and anti-mask crowd warned this week, “I don’t care what misinformation or conspiracy theories that you have heard…You are the ones threatening the freedoms of all the rest of us…”

Identity politics is a bit of monkey see, monkey do, and it is all the rage today. It’s a killer, and it’s a great American tragedy.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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14 responses to “Identity Politics and COVID: An American Tragedy.”

  1. Susan Duman says:

    Your comments today explain with such lucidity exactly what has happened.
    My appreciation for your intelligence and unusual capacity to articulate your thoughts.

  2. Robert borns says:

    Good points listed. But when trump announced the vaccine which was developed on his watch was ready for distribution ,Biden and Harris said they didn’t trust it because it was developed under trump. Identity politics or just stupid. And letting massive illegal immigrants into the USA without checking for COVID and then sending them all over the country at night in the middle of a pandemic, is that identity politics or just stupid. It’s simple truth. Stupid exists on both sides of the isle and constantly trying to make it look one sided is factually incorrect.

    • Response to Mr. Borns: In fairness, the Biden-Harris comments were far more nuanced. Following President Trump’s comments about injecting disinfectants, Biden and Harris, and many others expressed concern about any Trump-promoted remedies unless remedies were endorsed by recognized competent medical authorities. A video on social media suggests that Biden and Harris distrusted COVID-19 vaccines. The video was selectively edited to leave out the context of their statements. Their full statements show they were raising doubts about Trump’s trustworthiness, his ability to roll out the vaccines safely, and the risk of political influence over vaccine development. Politico rates the video being circulated on social media that claims that Biden and Harris didn’t trust a vaccine developed by the Trump Administration as False.

  3. Robert borns says:

    My point is proved. When trump says it,we are supposed to automatically believe it’s false. When Biden Harris says the border is safe and secure we are supposed to believe it without comment.sidebar—-I did see Harris on tv denigrate vacs because trump made them happen.

  4. Perry says:

    Agree with Bob Borns comments entirely. The China virus is
    dastardly and individuals must make their own choices of
    protection and guidance from the Government rather than mandates is the right of individuals.

    Personally I received the vaccines and thankful for the Warp
    Speed of the Trump administration in developing.

  5. Again, I agree with Bob Borns. The federal govt. should allow all 50 states to make their own decisions about the vaccine, the masks, etc. Each state has their own unique problems.

    Allowing all these people from Mexico and Central America to come to the USA for free food, free medical care, and free housing is unconscionable. No one knows if they are carriers of the Covid virus or other communicable diseases and so Biden ships them all over the country and eventually, they will spread illnesses elsewhere. Under Trump, you did not see this happening.

    The Trump Wall protected us, just like the Israeli Wall protected their citizens. The latter is not pretty, but did the job.

  6. Judy Allen says:

    I agree with Robert, Perry and Stuart. Without Trump pushing to get the vaccine so quickly and protecting our borders who really knows how many more would have lost their life to COVID and terrorism. I remain concerned and anxious over our “open door border” policy. You really think everyone coming is COVID free, law abiding lovers of this Country. Not me!

  7. Robert J. Fraiman says:

    Hal, why should identify politics vs rational politics become an
    issue on whether or not an individual should be vaccinated?When a Polio vaccine was developed in 1952 whether or not a child should be vaccinated was not a political issue, it just saved
    lives!! Would the same be true if Polio was todays issue vs covid19? Being vaccinated saves lives just as the Polio vaccine
    saved lives.

  8. Patricia Levy says:

    Many have died and been injured by the vaccine, I think it should be an individuals choice because one size does not fit all. Ten years ago I was injured by a flu shot, so I am not so anxious to take a shot that is experimental. I had COVID last January and recovered, so I have a natural immunity, which is better than the shot. Several friends that rushed out to get the shots got COVID anyway and suffered much more than I did. I think this is another way to divide us. Vaccinated against unvaccinated. I have done a lot of research about the shot and I feel very comfortable with my decision. No one forced us to take the polio vaccine, so why are they pushing the COVID vaccine? By the way, since I stopped taking the flu shot I don’t get sick every winter like I did when I took the shot.

  9. BLB says:

    I had the vaccine and am in favor of the vaccine, and in favor of everyone making their own choice. I have taken every vaccine imaginable, including polio(twice), smallpox, shingles, pneumonia, tetanus, annual flu shots etc etc. And I am a 3-time cancer survivor. But re my last cancer, I was the one in 10,000 that had an intolerance for the protocol chemo, and ended up in the ER and hospital for a month, now with long term side effects of chemo. Everyone’s body is different. I will never do chemo again. And I am currently on immunotherapy, which I have no side effects. Please let everyone come to their own conclusions!
    Trump and private enterprise through Warp Speed created a vaccine that saves lives.
    The Biden administration is creating a disaster with the border. As a Texas resident, I am more than disgusted with the current immigration crisis. It is my choice to wear a mask once again while doing normal everyday activities, and I totally blame our current administration for my inconvenience. But I am making the only choice that makes sense for me for the next 15 months, until the mid-term elections!!
    Totally agree with Robert, Perry, Stuart, Judy, Patricia!!! Excellent comments!

  10. Melanie says:

    Hal, I always enjoy your articles. However, I would caution everyone not to rely on the common news perception about Identity Vaxxing. Every one of my close friends are college educated Republicans, they voted for Trump and they along with all of their families are fully vaccinated. The only people around us who are not vaccinated are the typical Democratic voter who still hold a decades old fear of governmental experimentation on their grandparents. Even in the face of multiple family deaths, they do not trust the safety of the vaccine. I dare repeat that Kamala Harris saying she would not take a vaccine that was developed under the Trump administration is having lasting effects in that population. It is also hard to “sell” the need for safety when our southern border is wide open and Biden-Harris are allowing hundreds of thousands of untested, unvaccinated and in many cases Covid positive immigrants to invade America.

  11. Steve says:

    Can someone explain to me why most people who say they won’t take the vaccine are Republicans while very few identify as Democrats? And why most people who are now sick with the Delta variant are unvaccinated, while very few of vaccinated have contracted the new variant? Does Covid19 target only Democrats? Just curious.

  12. Mike says:


    What a surprise! Yet another column that in a nuanced way paints Republican leaning folks as Neanderthals.

    What’s your column conveniently overlooks is that what is emerging as one of the most significant issues in the vaccination program is the reluctance among African-American and Latino population to get vaccinated. I must’ve missed the article that explains how this significant segment of the population is Republican, but I am sure you’ll be able to come up with some facts that tries to convince your audience otherwise.

    As several other people have pointed out, how you could overlook what is happening at the border in light of the Delta Variant issues signals to me, and perhaps others, that you have a significant case of “ confirmation bias“ that impacts your ability to have an impartial or objective dialogue about what is happening in this country under the Biden administration.

    So for the benefit of your audience, let me try and make this pretty clear and direct. You hate Donald Trump, think that people who supported his policies are morons, and that we should overlook any data (e..g. Wisconsin’s recent decision to purge over 200,000 voters from the registration rolls or issues in Maricopa County or Georgia) which would suggest that there were significant irregularities in the 2020 election. Is that an accurate summation or did I miss something.

    Lest you think I am someTrump acolyte, I am still very p***ed angry over the way he conducted himself after the election. His legal efforts were a joke but what he did in Georgia is reprehensible in light of what we are seeing coming out of the Senate. He was a complete and total a*****e and I hold him directly responsible for the fact that we lost those two Senate seats in Georgia.

    That said, if yiu want to talk about the impact of identity politics, it might be helpful to at least consider the role that the Democrats have played as the chief instigators in promoting identity politics.

    And as someone with a home in Florida I’ll take Diesantis over Pritzker, Whitmer or several other Democratic governors any day of the week.

    • response to Mike:
      Actually, Mike, you missed quite a lot. First, you missed the fact that Wisconsin state law requires the Wisconsin Election Commission to remove voters from the rolls if they have not voted in the last four years, and do not respond to a mailing asking them if they want to keep that voter registration active. I can’t respond to your inference of significant voting irregularities in Maricopa County, or Georgia because you neglected to specify any significant voting irregularities in those areas. While I do not “hate Donald Trump,” I do hate the January 6th insurrection he encouraged and a variety of other Trumpian antics. Don’t you? Finally, I have never suggested that those who support any of Trump’s policies are morons because I have supported a number of his policies in these columns, and have, conversely, not hesitated to criticize Biden when I believe criticism to be appropriate. But supporting some of his policies doesn’t commend one to supporting all of his policies. While you and I, no doubt, have a different perspective on how history will ultimately judge the Trump Presidency, these columns have had no trouble taking either party or any politician to task.

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