Why Does Reopening Polarize Us?
The debate over reopening the economy has a peculiar characteristic: It breaks down almost entirely along political lines. Liberals emphasize the dangers of an open society, shaming those who want to go back to work. Conservatives argue the opposite. Red states are steadily reopening, while most blue states lag. House Democrats believe it isn’t safe for lawmakers to go back to work, while the Republican-controlled Senate is back in session.
It isn’t obvious that such a debate should be partisan, yet it is. Why? One popular explanation is that all roads lead to President Trump. Whatever he says, the left will say the opposite.
Geographic distribution has also been proposed as a factor. Liberals tend to pack into crowded cities, where the virus spreads more easily, while conservatives populate the more rural, safer regions. This explanation is neat but fails to explain the divide within cities, where Republicans support reopening more than their Democratic neighbors.
Another factor is that the economic fallout has harmed working-class, high-school-educated Americans far worse than the liberal-leaning college-educated. It is easy to “prioritize public health” when you work comfortably from home.
Finally, the far left is treating the lockdowns and the consequent economic devastation as an opportunity to “restructure” America into a socialist utopia. So they’re in no rush.
These factors contribute to the partisan divide, but I believe a complete account would take us deeper, into the realm of psychology and morality. Liberal and conservative brain function has been shown to differ considerably during exercises in risk-taking. These differences led researchers to conclude that socially conservative views are driven, at least in part, by people’s need to feel safe and secure. While liberals present themselves as more open to experience and change, conservatives seem more likely to protect that which we know. This divide appears to apply to multiculturalism, traditional institutions and financial risk, but not all unknown risks.
Today conservatives are the ones ready to confront risk head-on. That’s consistent with my experience in the military, where the overwhelming majority of special operators identify as conservatives. Recent data confirm my experiences, indicating that high-risk civilian occupations tend to be filled by those who lean right. If conservatives show more brain activity when processing fear, they also seem better at overcoming it.
Liberals are also more comfortable with a government that regulates more behavior and provides more services. They often say, “You can’t be free if you don’t have service X, Y and Z.” Such statements sound nonsensical to conservative ears. The conservative emphasis on personal responsibility leaves less room for the government micromanagement we’re witnessing now.
Conservatives understand basic morality differently, too. Research shows that among the five moral foundations—care, fairness, authority and tradition, in-group loyalty, and purity—liberals prioritize care and fairness, while conservatives engage all five about equally. The liberal weighting means that far more emphasis is placed on a single consideration—“If it saves even one life . . .”— to the exclusion of others, such as the costs to society. Liberals equate those costs with simple monetary hardship, easily replaced by a government check. Conservatives realize economic devastation may affect lives for years, altering their entire trajectories.
The liberal approach betrays a lack of imagination. Just because you dislike Mr. Trump doesn’t mean he must be wrong here. Just because you can work remotely doesn’t mean others can, too. Just because you don’t want to confront risk doesn’t mean others should be prevented from doing so. Just because you have a single-dimensional view of “caring” doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore the consequences of economic devastation.
It is time to reopen America in a smart and deliberate fashion and stop calling people murderers because they want to get back to work. The American people are responsible enough to live free and confront risk. Let them do so.