Should America Get a Divorce? - BCB #42
Also: partisanship affects preferences for censorship vs. free speech, as well as medical treatment.
Micah Sifry takes Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene at her word and asks what a “divorce” between Red and Blue would really mean, after she proposed the idea in a massive Twitter thread that begins,
left and right should consider a national divorce, not a civil war but a legal agreement to separate our ideological and political disagreements by states while maintaining our legal union.
Greene’s thread is a masterful piece of culture war posturing, weaving together dissatisfaction with public education, religion, trans issues, mail-in voting, climate policy, law enforcement, and the deficit. It’s a great example of how polarization means that every issue ends up aligned along a single axis – and of course this thread only strengthens those associations.
But would a divorce work? Could good fences really make good neighbors, as the saying goes?
Not in this case. A “national divorce” between “red states” and “blue states” is not really possible because states are not singular political identities; urbanized centers tend to be liberal while rural America tends to be conservative, as we explored in our issue on rural resentment. We can’t neatly divide states into Red or Blue without things getting very ugly. Look at what happened to India and Pakistan after partition in 1947 – mass migration, violence, and families divided to this day.
Yet asking about feasibility misses something. Greene is proposing that Americans “choose” their own way of life, without needing “to argue with one another anymore.” And, well, there’s certainly something attractive about this fantasy. Sifry writes,
I don’t think we are paying nearly enough attention to how much hyper-partisan polarization is affecting people at a personal level. According to the Pew Research Center, in late 2021, nearly six-in-ten Americans said having political conversations with those they disagree with is “stressful and frustrating,” an increase of almost ten percent from May 2019. Nearly two-thirds say they have political views they’re afraid to share with others, according to a 2020 Cato Institute study. We have to care about this because as the partisan gap widens, people’s willingness to use force against the other side increases.
While Greene leans hard on culture war stereotyping and baiting, she’s not the first to propose a split. There’s a way to interpret support for separation as a desperate cry for peace and harmony.
One of the central dilemmas of content moderation is the trade off between preventing harm and protecting freedom of expression. This study is a systematic analysis of the variables that influence such judgments. American citizens overall, despite differences across the aisle, preferred removing harmful misinformation over protecting free speech – though this depends on the type of potential harm, and whether it’s a repeated offense.
One weakness of the study is that it examined false information on only four topics, all of which were Blue-coded (election denial, anti-vaccination, holocaust denial, and climate change denial). It’s possible that if the study included Red-coded misinformation topics we would not see such a partisan split. Studies of conspiracy theories have sometimes suffered from a similar problem, asking only about Red-coded conspiracies. As we’ve covered before, belief in conspiracies is remarkably bipartisan, it’s just that each side believes different things.
A more recent study adds nuance by showing how Red and Blue differ in their perceptions of misinformation. Rather than a disagreement over facts, the authors find a “value gap.” Even when Red agrees that content is false, they are half as likely to say it should be removed, and twice as likely to consider removal to be censorship. This supports the idea that the partisan difference in the study above is real, and not just an artifact of the specific misinformation topics chosen.
A new study shows that political leanings even shape critical care physicians’ treatment choices. Doctors answered questions about their political ideology and reported beliefs about the effectiveness of ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and vaccination for COVID-19. They were also asked to make hypothetical decisions about how to treat a patient with life-threatening COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, political ideology was linked to beliefs about vaccination and hydroxychloroquine: “Conservative physicians were about five times more likely than their moderate and liberal peers to say that they would prescribe hydroxychloroquine to patients.”
A different study warns that partisan conflict over COVID-19 vaccination might be eroding support for childhood vaccine mandates. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a federally run database where anyone can report symptoms following vaccination. (Crucially, these reports are unverified and cannot be directly used to prove that vaccines are causing negative side effects – the information needed for causal inference simply isn’t there.)
Reports of negative reactions to vaccines in general spiked post-pandemic. But the increase in adverse reports was much larger on the Red side.
Further, polls show less support for vaccination across the country. This could jeopardize state-level childhood vaccination mandates, and lead to the re-emergence of long dormant diseases, as with the measles outbreaks of 2019.
Quote of the Week
We also should recognize that this fault line in US politics runs through families, across generations and genders. … Even before Trump was elected, many younger women in particular were talking about how their fathers and uncles were going MAGA. Some talked of helping their mothers get absentee ballots, so they could secretly vote for Hillary. The stresses were, and are, real.