The U.K. and the U.S. are two countries divided by a common plague
“Every generation of Americans has been called to make shared sacrifices for the good of the nation,” President Donald Trump reminded us on March 18. “Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”
In times of trouble, a sense of shared peril and common endeavor can remind us that we need one another.
But crises can also pull people apart. We have already had fierce disagreements over how to respond, over who is suffering the most and who should pay for the recovery. And of course, crises can widen existing partisan, racial and class cleavages.
In the end, whether a crisis unites or divides probably tells us more about our society than about the crisis itself. We can learn a lot about ourselves in difficult times.
Comparison provides some insight. I am an American living in the U.K., so it is natural to compare the two countries and my experiences in each. They have a lot of similarities — a common language, a shared history and some unhealthy dietary habits.
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In 2016, both countries seemed to enter the populist moment together. An anti-elite insurgency voted for the U.K. to leave the E.U. just five months before a similar sentiment in the U.S. propelled Trump to the presidency. Both countries remain deeply polarized, led by divisive leaders and, of course, both have been hit very hard by the pandemic. As of May 29, they rank No. 1 and 2 in the world in deaths from COVID-19.
But there are subtle yet important differences in the British and American responses to the outbreak. Most tellingly, the virus has not noticeably reinforced partisan divisions in the U.K. Opinion divides sharply over whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson is doing a good job in dealing with the virus, but notably not over the need to fight it and the importance of harsh measures like lockdowns and social distancing.
Most tellingly, the virus has not noticeably reinforced partisan divisions in the U.K.
One would struggle to define a “Conservative” or “Labour” party approach to combating the disease. The labour opposition agrees with the basic premise of the need for a lockdown, social distancing and the importance of testing. And given that the prime minister himself nearly died from the disease, one would be hard pressed to argue that his government is not taking the threat seriously. Rather than quibble over the strategy, the partisan struggle is over who is most competent to manage the response.
There is no equivalent to the idea, so prevalent in U.S. debate, that the political parties in Britain take fundamentally different approaches to the disease. Democrats in the U.S. broadly favor stricter lockdown measures, more cautious openings and more government action to support those in economic distress, while Republicans favor restarting the economy quicker, accepting greater risk of renewed outbreaks and relying on individual judgment to regulate behavior.
In short, the greatest national crisis in decades has brought Britain closer together, but it has worsened the already crippling polarization in American politics, with consequences for the response. Partisan divides explain, for example, why the next coronavirus relief package, which both sides agree is needed, is stuck between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate that cannot agree on how to spend the money.
The difference between unity and division appears to reside in two unique features of the U.S. political scene.
The first is the geography of partisanship in the United States. The coronavirus, of course, has no partisan leanings but it does appear to like densely packed cities in which it can spread more easily. The most fundamental U.S. political divide is between the big cities and the rural areas. U.S. political institutions reflect this divide. Heavily urban states are usually ruled by Democratic governors, while more rural states tend to have Republican governors. The U.S. Senate, which is heavily weighted to rural votes, is controlled by Republicans while the Democrats control the more proportional House of Representatives.
This means that the disease has a political geography in the United States. It has disproportionately affected blue states and Democratic voters. The five of the most affected states (measured by cases per capita) all voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and seven of them have Democratic governors. Several Republican leaders have described the coronavirus relief efforts as “blue-state bailouts.”
The second is the nature of leadership. Johnson has had no choice but take responsibility for the pandemic response. Despite some devolution to the regions, Britain remains a very centralized state and there is simply no one else to take the blame or get the credit. Responsibility means that he needs to push consistently for national unity in both speech and deed because it is so critical to an effective response to the virus. His partisan rhetoric, which was fierce during the Brexit debates, has notably abated of late.
Trump has chosen to take advantage of the U.S. federal structure to deny executive office responsibility for the pandemic response.
Trump, by contrast, has chosen to take advantage of the U.S. federal structure to deny executive office responsibility for the pandemic response. This abdication may have some pitfalls for him politically, and it has certainly hardened pre-existing partisan rancor, but it has also freed up him to take partisan shots from the sidelines with little heed to its impact on the effectiveness of the response to the pandemic. Despite his occasional calls for unity he has not hesitated to use the crisis to unleash starkly political attacks. He has targeted blue state governors, Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and even former President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican, for his message of unity.
The geographic nature of American partisan divides is a national liability in that it means that unity in crisis is not a given. Whereas after 9/11, politicians used the moment to draw the country together, the pandemic has driven Americans further apart. Unity in difficult times requires leaders willing to take responsibility for national problems and take actions that bring us together.
America’s partisan and geographic divides have steadily grown since 9/11. The U.K. also has brutal partisan divides that have often hobbled policymaking in recent years. But at this difficult moment, a leader that has experienced close up the impact of the virus and an opposition party that takes its role in governance seriously have understood that there are limits to partisanship amid national crises.
is the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. His areas of focus include U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic relations.