Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
the national interest

Democrats Learned From Their COVID Mistakes. Republicans Didn’t.

Democrats on school closing, Republicans on vaccines: a case study.

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The Journal of the American Medical Association has a grim new study of Florida and Ohio, finding that after the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available, excess mortality among Republican voters was significantly higher. That is to say, Republicans died because they were less likely to use the free vaccine.

The novel coronavirus, being novel, forced many people to make fast judgments about questions that had little evidence. Mistakes abounded on both sides. The largest mistake on the conservative side was a skepticism of the COVID vaccine. The largest mistake on the progressive side was an insistence on closing schools. But the different ways the two major parties have handled these errors reveal a great deal about their diverging internal cultures.

When the pandemic struck, public-health experts and elected officials turned to the experience of the 1918 flu pandemic, when school closures had proved a highly effective tool for saving lives. Over time, it turned out this lesson didn’t transfer: The 1918 flu was disproportionately deadly to the young, while COVID-19 disproportionately kills the elderly.

Getting liberals to reverse their position on school closures was not easy. Economist Emily Oster, one of the first figures to publish data showing schools were not a major vector for COVID transmission, became a hate figure on the left. Many progressive activists bitterly contested growing evidence both that in-person schooling was relatively safe and that school closures had created catastrophic learning loss.

But the evidence did eventually win out. By the start of the 2021 school year, schools were open almost everywhere. The pro-closing side of the debate has fled the field, and even the handful of highly neurotic social-distancing enthusiasts have given up trying to stop in-person education. In April, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten deemphasized the role her union had played in prolonging school closures — which, if nothing else, is a testament to the degree to which that position is no longer viable.

Contrast this process with the Republican Party’s internal debate on vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccine was developed by the Trump administration, and the Operation Warp Speed process it used to override bureaucratic obstacles and speed up development was almost certainly the administration’s greatest achievement.

Yet it was on the right, not the left, where vaccine skepticism largely took hold. And as more and more evidence mounted of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, that skepticism did not abate. To the contrary, it has actually grown. Trump was booed by a crowd for touting the vaccine, and has stopped trying to promote that achievement. (It takes a lot to get Trump to refrain from bragging about something he did.)

Ron DeSantis, Trump’s currently leading rival, has promoted anti-vaccination rhetoric and positioned Florida as the most vaccine-skeptical state. His campaign has attacked Trump for calling the COVID vaccine safe:

The response among conservative intellectuals has been equally revealing. Many conservative pundits strongly support vaccines. As DeSantis began flirting with vaccine skepticism, their response was to deny it. Then they started pretending it wasn’t happening at all.

Both parties were split internally over an important COVID-related matter. But the Democratic Party’s norms of internal dialogue are open enough that eventually the faction that had evidence on its side was able to prevail.

The Republican Party’s norms of internal dialogue are an epistemic disaster. It didn’t matter what the evidence said. The side that won was the side that could more effectively cater to tribal resentment and paranoia.

And here we have a synecdoche for the state of the two-party system in America today: one a flawed but still functional party, and the other utterly pathological and dangerous to the entire country, and even to its own partisans.

Democrats Corrected Their COVID Errors. Republicans Didn’t.