“A presidential election in the United States may be looked upon as a time of national crisis. As the election draws near, intrigues intensify, and agitation increases and spreads. The citizens divide into several camps, each behind its candidate. The entire nation falls into a feverish state. The election becomes the daily grist of the public papers, the subject of private conversations, the aim of all activity, the object of all thought, the sole interest of the moment.”*
So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s. Not much about the election dynamics he described almost two centuries ago has changed. But much seems to have intensified during 2020, especially the “division into several camps.”
Unfortunately, one camp more than the other in the current Presidential election has chosen to act contrary to science. In many cases, the members of that camp blatantly reject strong evidence of what can protect the health of the population.
However, we should not be shortsighted. During my 40+ years of research for the public good, I have witnessed people across the political continuum reject clear, well-established facts. Some proportion of liberals, centrists, and conservatives succumb to the temptation to ignore or reject truths that don’t neatly correspond with their pre-determined assumptions or that don’t conveniently support their goals.
The natural tendency to bend reality to fit our preconceptions and biases, along with the sometimes subconscious purging of information that does not align with our worldview constitute aspects of human frailty that underlie the rationale for independent news media, nonpartisan research organizations, and other institutions and practices that can ground us in accurate representations of reality.
Mask wearing and social distancing constitute “no brainers” – actions everyone should readily accept without hesitation in order to protect both health and economic vitality. In 2007, long before controversies regarding how best to handle COVID-19, the AmericanJournal of Medicine reported strong evidence that, during the pandemic of 1918-19, “nonpharmaceutical interventions,” such as school closings, cancelation of public gatherings, quarantines, and mask wearing, reduced deaths.
Yet, politicians have perverted these sensible, evidence-based practices into partisan symbols. That’s very sad and has already had deleterious effects.
Ironically, China, the country in which the virus initially launched itself, successfully controlled COVID and restored economic activity quickly – because it placed public health measures first. Good health seems to support economic growth. At Wilder Research, one of our studies sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and reported last year, showed that metropolitan regions in the U.S. with stronger health seem to have more vibrant economic capacity and greater resilience when they encounter shocks and challenges. In short, it's not either/or. We can have good health and economic prosperity.
The politicization of established health practices has killed and will kill. That’s why Dr. Fauci, this country’s North Star during the pandemic, steadfastly refuses to become partisan. His objective is to serve the public good, regardless of the political party in power, and despite whatever the prevailing attitudes, fads, and fashions of the times might be.
On Election Day and any other day, I encourage all of us to keep an open mind in searching for the best approach to today’s issues. In voting, give preference to candidates – of any party – who base their platforms on sound, reliable information. Everyone deserves their own opinion. In fact, it is good to have a mix of opinions so that we can learn with one another and evolve over time our understanding of what our planet needs to survive and thrive. However, everyone does not deserve their own separate set of facts.
If someone says that masks do not work to prevent infection, we have a hundred years of evidence to prove that statement incorrect. The intrigues, agitation, and feverishness that de Tocqueville mentioned should not cloud our judgement, shape our thinking, and influence our votes. Science, while imperfect and always improving, can nourish our decision-making about the people, programs, and policies that our communities need.
Facts matter, because
*From Democracy in America, translated and paraphrased from several sources.