Don’t judge the US by its politics

Last September, nearly half of all US adults told the Pew Research Center that they would “probably” or “definitely” not accept a Covid-19 vaccine. More than four in 10 Democrats were among them. It is only in retrospect that the breadth of America’s initial vaccine hesitancy is startling. At the time, it was wholly of a piece with a nation lost to quackery, civic decline and near-feral scorn for elites.

It is hard to know where that nation went. The US has administered at least one dose of vaccine to 63 per cent of adults, which implies millions of changed minds (and a few bluffers to begin with). President Joe Biden is aiming for 70 per cent by July 4. Regardless of age, half the entire population is now partly vaccinated. With variants of the virus nearer at hand than herd immunity, refuseniks are still plentiful enough to matter. It is rash to dismiss their once-daunting movement as a paper tiger. But there is no ignoring the broad show of trusting compliance and its threat to all we “know” about this fractious country.

It is time to entertain the exotic thought that America is not its politics. The first clue for this epiphany came last year, when a lockdown with few if any peacetime precedents commanded not just wide obedience but supermajorities of assent. Biden is president in large part because his predecessor Donald Trump bet on a silent plurality of, “Don’t tread on me” types that never materialised. What dissent there was — over the utility of masks, the wisdom of indoor rallies — was real enough and lethal enough. But the “culture war” was for the most part a headline in search of nationwide substance. Given the tribalism of red and blue America, it should have been much worse.

The pandemic itself was an audit of government. Vaccination, at least in countries with sufficient doses, is a test of governability. It probes how much voters themselves accept facts, defer to remote authorities and set norms of good citizenship for each other. On that score, no rich nation was expected to fare worse than one in its third decade of vicious partisanship. Even those of us who don’t use the window into Hades that is social media feared for US take-up rates. Instead, it is Taiwan and other Pacific paragons, the cue for much credulous bunk about Asian docility this time last year, that are having to catch up.

The implications here are profound. If there is a gap between the noise of America’s public square and the good sense of its mass behaviour (what economists would call its revealed preferences), the first should trouble us much less than it does. A country that can at times seem bound for violent rupture might be deceptively cohesive and governable. The lesson is as much for its external enemies as anyone else. They should not derive too much hope from the US’s discordant politics.

It is hard to push this line of argument far without whitewashing politics as a harmless sideshow. It isn’t. It gets people killed on the grounds of Congress. To judge by the moral arc of the Republican party, there is no respite in the offing. But it is sometimes taken for granted that a nation’s public life dictates all its social outcomes. The evidence of the moment suggests that it need not. At least while the stakes are existential, Americans seem able to outperform their politics.

The mystery is how. The Scots have a phrase for a Celtic or Rangers fan who howls sectarian abuse before resuming a blameless life. This is your “weekend bigot”. It is only one example of our species’ eerie knack for compartmentalisation. Lots of people who tell pollsters that Israel had a hand in the September 11 attacks in the US then go about their banal day.

For all its poison, US politics appears to be highly compartmentalised. Millions of people use it as an outlet for a coarse or tribal part of themselves. But most seem perfectly able to snap out of it when normal life, and especially their practical interests, call.

Their avowed cynicism did not stop multitudes caving in to two technocratic demands in a year: the first on their freedom, the second on their very persons. That a large minority of Democrats and Republicans say they would mind their child marrying someone from the other party does not gum up society in a meaningful way.

Seen from this angle, even the fact that most Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen is chilling, yes, but not proof of trouble to come. What matters is how intensely they hold that belief and what, if anything, they would do to act on it. September’s anti-vaxxers seemed to mean it at the time.

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