COVIDiaries Part 6

As someone who grew up in the reddest of red-state America (Alabama) and has spent the last eight or so years in the bluest of blue-state America (DC for five years and now SF) I’ve been thinking a lot about why Red and Blue America Aren’t Experiencing the Same Pandemic.

SF, the poster child for civic dysfunction and governmental red tape, has excelled in this crisis. Liberty University, by contrast, resumed classes a week after SF implemented a lifesaving “shelter in place” order. Today, SF is handling the crisis better than any city in the US. By Friday, nearly a dozen Liberty students had developed Covid-19 symptoms.

I have theories. Obviously the virus hit West-coast cities first, so naturally they’re going to respond first. But if anything red states should have moved more quickly than blue states, since last week we knew so much more than we did a few weeks ago.

The factor I’ve been thinking about the most is the difference between the kinds of problems each of the two Americas are able to recognize and the different ways they address those problems.

In my reading and experience, red-state America is really good at recognizing problems that are clearly visible and happening locally and among their in-group. Not only do they recognize these problems, but they fix them personally.

For example, southern towns don’t tolerate visible homelessness epidemics the way Seattle, LA, and SF do. It’s interesting to note that Republicans give more to charity than Democrats. Alienated America describes how small, Republican leaning immigrant communities maintain private social safety nets.

But red-state America is really bad at recognizing and addressing problems that are systemic, diffuse, and require experts to understand. So while Republicans understand that some kids in their community won’t get Christmas presents without an Angel Tree, they tend to downplay systemic problems like racism, climate change, and COVID-19 (for now).

Republicans are much more suspicious than Democrats of experts and journalists. Some of this is understandable, considering how much contempt academics and journalists tend to have for Republicans. But it’s extremely regrettable, since this leaves Fox News, Breitbart, and Trump to fill the void.

Blue-state America, conversely, is really good at recognizing problems that are systemic, diffuse, and require experts to explain. Hence the better reaction to COVID-19. Unlike red-state America, they tend to believe scientists when they say that something is, or will be, a problem.

At the same time, blue-state America is really bad at recognizing and addressing clearly visible local problems.

From Recode:

Silicon Valley has long featured a peculiar paradox: The place that is home to some of the world’s richest people is also home to some of its stingiest donors in their local communities. The wealthy of the tech industry have historically liked to fund international, or even intergalactic, moonshot projects — colonizing outer space, building a clock to last 10,000 years, or convincing kids to drop out of college — rather than the unglitzy, frontline work of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food banks in their backyards.

That Democrats prefer higher taxes to charitable giving is a perfect example of this divide. Rather than get their hands dirty finding the right charities, Democrats would rather entrust the government to do the right thing with their money.

I’ll note that the cures Republicans propose to homelessness, for example, are often worse than the disease.

But Democrats, while they’re better at trusting experts, are often happy to sign a petition or make a comment online and feel like they’ve done enough while their literal neighbors’ limbs rot away from gangrene outside their door. It’s Democrats, more than Republicans, who like to treat politics as a hobby.

There’s also a difference in how red and blue state Americans think about individual responsibility and work ethic. Red state Americans tend to see these as a much more powerful motivators, which lead them to focus on the problems they as individuals can see and fix.

Blue state Americans tend to care more about care and fairness on a macro level. This is demotivating, however. As the saying goes, if it’s everybody’s problem it’s nobody’s problem. Hence SF’s usual longstanding dysfunction.

The other big divide, of course, is wealth.

Today I saw a friend had posted Social Distancing Is a Marshmallow Experiment You Didn’t Sign Up For. Originally, the “marshmallow experiment” purported to find that kids who have better self-control go on to greater success. So the premise of the article is to encourage people to show self-control by self-isolating so we don’t all die.

What researchers discovered later is that the kids who come from wealthier, more stable backgrounds are better able to resist eating the marshmallow. Which makes sense. If you’re used to having plenty to eat and you can trust the adults in your life to follow through on their promises to you you’re both going to be better able to delay gratification and you’re also more likely to be successful in adulthood. It turns out the marshmallow study showed that success is less about your personality and more about your privilege.

Am I alone in thinking that writing for Psychology Today should require knowing the real takeaway from one of psychology’s most famous studies? Also, the irony of beating people over the head about their personal responsibility to distance themselves while ignoring the structural inhibitors to doing so like poverty by misrepresenting a study which actually shows that poverty creates personality differences.

Let’s be real for a second. It’s relatively easy to shut SF (and Seattle) down because everyone with any money/power here can easily and safely work from home. You can make software from your living room. The move threw lots of people into unemployment. But the vast majority of those people are either going to be fine because they have families who are able to help or are too poor or live too far away to pose any real threat to SF’s electeds. One reason red-state America isn’t shuttering non-essential businesses is that many of those businesses can’t operate from people’s living rooms.

In much of red-state America, your safety net is your church and community. If everyone gets laid off because your city decided to shut down (for a virus your President says is no big deal), there’s no safety net for any of you. We in blue-state America need to recognize that a shutdown in Alabama is an entirely different proposition than everyone having to write their policy briefs from home in D.C.

It’s a major problem that America’s trust in institutions is so low that millions of Americans believe Trump over epidemiologists. Many don’t even know what the epidemiologists are saying or how test and trace is working in South Korea because Fox News isn’t telling them that. Because the powerful people Fox News serves don’t want social isolation to hit their bottom line.

And let’s take a second to consider the fact that our social safety net is so piss-poor that millions of Americans are risking death to try to stay employed as long as possible.

America is having two different reactions to COVID-19 in part because one America has the time and education to read the experts, who they agree with and trust. This America does knowledge work they can easily perform from home. They have college degrees and a belief that they’ll be okay, economically, eventually. This America can ignore the problems outside their door while they debate cap and trade versus carbon offsets online like they’re sports teams.

The other America doesn’t have time to find the experts and read the studies, but will believe people who don’t talk down to them. This America works in warehouses, factories and in service jobs where they either show up and get paid or don’t and get fired. This America doesn’t have anyone to turn to once their neighbors find themselves out of work.

When COVID-19 is said and done, I suspect red-state America will suffer most. First red states will likely have more cases per capita because they responded more slowly, giving the virus weeks to spread undetected. These states started out with fewer resources to fight the virus which will be quickly overwhelmed once it starts killing. Last, these states will have more to rebuild, with less to rebuild with.

When this is said and done, we cannot go back to normal. Let’s not go back to two Americas, each with their own experts, each with their own social safety nets. Let’s come together as one nation and ensure that everyone knows the truth about what’s happening and no one has to choose between death by poverty and death by virus.

I dunno. Just a thought.

Love you, my babies.


  1. Nicholas Weininger

    As an extreme example, says that the highly unrepresentative subpopulation of San Franciscans who buy smart thermometers from Kinsa is doing social distancing to really great effect: we have about 20% of the normal rate of fever these days, versus about 120% in the first half of March.

  2. Twitter follower, first-time reader here!
    Cool post. A couple thoughts:
    – As far as reaction speed goes, both red and blue America had a long time to prepare before cases started growing exponentially — neither did. I think the better takeaway is that people don’t take threats seriously until they’re at their doorstep.
    – Similarly, blue America’s reverence for experts seems like it might have been a liability in this case! What with the mask controversy, prestige media initially downplaying covid, etc (though now it’s conservative media doing that).
    – It’s funny how respect for authority figures has become a left-wing trait! As recently as Jon Haidt’s Righteous Mind, that was thought to be a conservative thing.
    – I agree that Red America will get hit harder. Gotta think age and preexisting medical issues are a big part of this too.

    • cathyreisenwitz

      Good point that people don’t take threats seriously until they’re at their doorstep. Certainly experts have been wrong in this case, in the ways you pointed out, in ways that hurt red and blue America. But blue America seems to now, for the most part, understand that the mask thing is wrong and the media downplayed Covid while red-state America still doesn’t want to stay inside. I wouldn’t say the left has respect for authority figures. Academics and journalists don’t have any ability to make you do anything. They have respect for expertise. Red America has respect for brute for authority, but little respect for expertise. Red America will probably get hit harder. Poor America, and Black and Brown America, will definitely get the worst of it.

  3. Dan Volker

    I agree there is a MAGA America and a Democratic Socialist America….But I disagree about the divide as it is most important regarding Covid-19. I think the key issues are Big cities ( which have a culture that is fundamentally flawed toward socialism, but even worse in the case of an inability to exist with the required social distance). Case in point – the Hospital ship comes to New York City and the residents prove they are incapable of social distance. Small town and rural America finds this easy – and this is also the heart of MAGA America.

    • cathyreisenwitz

      Except cities like SF and Seattle are physically distancing better than rural areas.

    • Andrew Van Wye

      In what sense is the desire for bigger government in the cities a flaw? It strikes me as a natural response to the fact that cities, by their very nature, require more public goods.

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