“It’s always been the orientation of America on balance, compared to other countries, to put a priority on individual freedom and liberty,” says Andrea Campbell, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the intersection of politics and public health.
It’s the ideal that birthed the US, when colonists split from the British monarchy to establish their own nation. It powered pioneers who ventured west to the frontier, where they settled their own towns and made their own rules. It’s in our DNA.
It’s also sown deep political divides, distrust of centralized authority and even skepticism of science. And it’s informing the country’s unruly response to this pandemic.
It’s reinforcing our partisan politics
Republicans and Democrats interpret individualism differently, and those divides are more pronounced than ever in our deeply polarized political climate.
Now, even the pandemic is refracted through an ideological lens.
“Nothing binds groups together like facing a common enemy,” says Ann Keller, a University of California-Berkeley associate professor who studies pandemic responses. “But we’re still treating members of the other party as the enemy rather than the virus.”
His supporters are listening. So are those who detest him. Both hear what they want to.
Questions over reopening are fraught, too. More than half of Republicans in the same poll said they feel comfortable returning to their normal routines. Just a quarter of Democrats said the same.
Those opinions played out in state closures. Democrat-led California shut down on March 19, the first state to do so. Meanwhile, Republican-led states like Florida and Texas resisted shutting down until two weeks later and reopened relatively quickly.
But the coronavirus isn’t being viewed in the same way.
“We have the capacity to overlook party and get behind a president and get behind a cause,” Keller says. “And we’re just not seeing that in this pandemic.”
It’s feeding anger toward state governments
Americans have resented centralized power since they dumped tea in Boston Harbor. Many still bristle when they think politicians are stepping on their freedoms — even in a pandemic.
Because there was never a nationwide stay-at-home order and the virus didn’t unfold evenly across the country, some states took decisive early action, which might’ve helped them avoid potentially devastating outcomes, says David Rosner, a sociomedical historian at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“The fact that different states at different moments had the ability to shape their own reaction was a good thing,” Rosner says. “They didn’t depend on a federal government that had no coherent activity, actions or ability to shape a federal response to illness and disease.”
Limited government is a conservative ideal, which may explain why Trump has handed the reins back to the states.
Without national guidelines and an organized response, states, counties and residents have been left to make their own choices, either in line with or against public health advice.
Republican governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Democrats like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan have stoked the rage of residents who accuse them of stifling their rights to reopen their small business or go to a hair stylist.
But Americans have obeyed and even welcomed government intervention in past crises, Rosner notes. In the 1930s President Franklin Delano Roosevelt grew the federal government’s powers permanently with New Deal programs that helped pull the country out of the Great Depression.
And again during World War II, Americans largely accepted sweeping changes for the communal good. Food and clothing were rationed and the economy became almost entirely industrial — all in service of the war effort.
“We’re not seeing Americans pull together in the way we thought they would, like the sacrifices made in World War II,” Keller says. “People saw it as part of being an American, and people found meaning in those individual sacrifices. I think it’s striking that we’re not seeing that.”
It’s reflecting our distrust of science
The same may not be true if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available.
That’s because of a meager but vocal (and growing) mistrust in science, punctuated by the climate crisis and the anti-vaccine movement. People in these groups view scientific experts as dictatorial figures whose decisions strip people of their freedoms to choose what’s best for them.
The most divisive scientific topics of our time, climate change and vaccination, are well-studied. The novel coronavirus is not. It emerged at the tail end of 2019, and we are still learning more about its transmission.
Guidance around it has changed rapidly, most notably where masks are concerned. That only fuels further mistrust in people already skeptical of science.
It may have weakened the White House’s confidence in the health agency, Keller says.
“For some reason, the CDC has not regained its footing and has not been given leave to create a national-level response,” she says. “The organization that has always led pandemic responses nationally looks to be incredibly hobbled.”
It’s fortifying our belief that America knows best
We defend our freedoms fiercely. We bark in the face of fear, and we don’t like being told what to do. We’re Americans, and we’ve emerged victorious from every crisis we’ve ever weathered, right?
We haven’t followed any countries’ leads. That’s the American way — our individualistic identity is a global one, too.
“Americans have this very strong sense of American exceptionalism — that the US is different than other countries and superior in many ways,” Campbell says.
South Korea’s model worked. The US lagged behind it.
“You’d imagine that people would take [other countries’ responses] as evidence that continuing to quarantine and social distance are effective responses to the virus,” Campbell says. “But what we’ve seen is kind of poo-pooing what other countries do and thinking we know best.”
It’s leading our cost-benefit approach to the virus
So, when weighing the tradeoffs of social distancing, many Americans make their decision with some capitalistic cost-benefit analysis. The cost is life as we know it — going to restaurants, shopping, visiting friends, working at an office. The benefit is our health, and the health of loved ones and strangers.
Making sacrifices to help a stranger may be a hard sell for some.
“The issue with the coronavirus is that it’s not very visible,” Keller says. “You don’t know who you’re protecting, who’s avoided getting sick from your actions. That’s a big ask of people, especially when it appears that not everyone is doing it or that the criteria seems to be different in different parts of the country.”
Coronavirus isn’t something we can see rip through the country like a tornado. The benefits, too, are invisible. If coronavirus guidelines work, they may not seem like they were ever necessary, because fewer people will have gotten sick.
But people will remember what they lost by making those sacrifices.
But we can still fight this together
If the virus is with us for many more months, we may move toward a united response, Keller says.
“There is potential that we will see something that looks more like Americans pulling together, a more common view of what kind of sacrifices are necessary,” she says.
Americans have “great traditions” of coming together when crises threaten us, Rosner says. From the Great Depression to 9/11, we’ve weathered conflicts that have tested our national mettle.
The conditions of coronavirus are more fraught than those crises, but Keller thinks that the longer we live with this, the greater the pressure to coalesce to defeat it.
Not every American subscribes to the historic definition of individualism that prizes oneself over the communal good. Some are exercising their individual will to stay home if they can, in line with public health advice. And those of us who can’t stay home are largely following the safest protocols for how to act in the workplace.
Americans don’t want to live in fear of an invisible enemy, and we don’t want our country to crumble. But to beat this crisis, we may need to balance individual liberties with collective sacrifice. That doesn’t come naturally to us, but we can do it. We’ve done it before.
CNN’s Athena Jones, Jennifer Agiesta and Daniel Burke contributed to this report.