When a threat to all humans exists, it would seem irrational for a political party to politicize the matter. But this does happen. One reason is that while it seems Americans are extremely polarized; this is often more appearance than reality. While Americans do disagree strongly on certain limited issues, there is considerable consensus about many issues. Because of this, there is often a need to manufacture conflict in which political points can be scored. Since a threat generates considerable emotional responses it can be ideal for politization—a party can tap into the emotions and manipulate them to its advantage. There are also cases in which taking a threat seriously is seen as contrary to the interests of the influential and they work hard to politicize the matter. If they succeed, they can recruit voters to their side and get them to support policies that put them in danger. Thus, a political party can have two excellent reasons to politicize a threat to everyone: to score political points and serve the interests of those who benefit from allowing the threat to remain unaddressed.
Politicization can be extremely effective at engaging emotions and disengaging reasoning. There are numerous fallacies (such as group think) and cognitive biases (such as in group bias) that feed and are fed by ideology. If you have strong ideological views you were almost certainly thinking of examples of how those you do not like have engaged in the behavior described above—or similar behavior. For example, if you are liberal, then you are likely to have thought of the Republican politicization of climate change. If you are a conservative, you might have been thinking about the sins of the Democrats. If so, then you can see how effectively conflict can be created along party lines.
The COVID-19 virus presents a clear threat to everyone, but it quickly became politicized. Initially the Trump administration downplayed the virus and accused the Democrats of using it to attack Trump. While the administration eventually accepted it as a real threat, the idea that is a hoax aimed at hurting Trump persists. There were certainly some perceived short-term advantages to politicizing the virus—to keep the markets calm through ignorance, to allow business to continue as usual and to hope that the virus would not arrive until after the 2020 election. Political points could also be scored against the Democrats by accusing them of making up a virus threat to hurt Trump and to buffer Trump against accusations of incompetence—he would have solved the problem but for the hateful Democrats.
From the Republican perspective, the Democrats were the villains—doing all that they are accused of in order to harm Trump and impede his efforts. On their view, it was the Democrats who were manufacturing the conflict; first by creating a virus hoax and then by interfering with Trump’s efforts to address the very real virus. It could certainly be argued that the Democrats will exploit Trump’s failings to help them in the 2020 election and this is politicizing the threat to score political points. How one sees this matter will, obviously, tend to shake out along ideological lines—thus politicizing the issue of politicization.
While, as noted above, political points can be scored by politicizing an objective threat this has negative consequences. The most obvious is that time and resources are spent fighting each other rather than uniting against a threat to all of us. Another consequence is that manufacturing a conflict requires that one (or both) sides are engaged in misinformation, thus misleading people and this can have enduring consequences. In the case of the virus, while Fox News and the White House have shifted their position to match reality, the groundwork they laid early on still serves as a foundation for the enduring view that the virus is either a hoax or not very serious.
Some Republicans will certainly want to blame the Democrats; a common narrative is that their impeachment efforts are partially to blame for the virus crisis. As would be expected, one’s ideological lens determines how one sees this matter: Trump and Fox News as the villains who politicized the virus or the Democrats as the villains who distracted Trump from the virus.
There are three solutions. The first is that politicians need to exercise both judgment and restraint before engaging in politization of a crisis. The obvious problem is that politization can be advantageous and it is one of the stock tools of a politician. As such, getting politicians to use good judgment and exercise restraint will be challenging. The second solution is that voters can decide to support candidates who are more likely to exercise such judgment and restraint. Third, voters also decide how they respond. If they resisted efforts to politicize crisis that should be non-partisan, then the efforts of politicians to do so would be far less likely to succeed.
One clear concern is that the charge of politization can be used, ironically, to politicize and issue and to try to silence legitimate criticism. For example, the facts show that Trump’s initial handling of the crisis was terrible and that he was engaged in willfully or from ignorance making untrue claims about the virus and the situation. As such, the legitimate criticisms aimed at these problems could be non-political. But if the critics happen to be Democrats or liberals, then they could be accused of politicizing the matter because they are being critical. To address this problem, critics should endeavor to focus on the facts and try to steer clear of what might appear to be overtly political. This will certainly be challenging, since the other side is almost never going to accept even legitimate and fair criticism and will instead try to cast even such criticism as unfair politicization. As such, the manufactured polarization in the United States that has served the parties so well has done considerable damage to America. As should be expected. Unless we address this, new crises are likely to involve the same problems as the COVID-19 crisis.