“In the span of a few months, Germany has gone from a shining example of a country that rallied the public behind a Covid-19 strategy to a cautionary tale about what can happen when that strategy falls apart.”
“Unified, clear public health communication saved lives — but as the months dragged on, it was no match for shifting national politics, a fragmented system of government, and a public so tired of the pandemic that they came up with a word for the exhaustion: “coronamüde.”
Germany still reports about two-thirds the Covid-19 deaths per capita as the rest of the EU, and about half the per capita death toll of the US. But its lead has shrunk over time”
“In September, after Germany’s summer of freedom, Oktoberfest arrived. Munich’s iconic festival was canceled, but some beer halls around Germany held their own celebrations. Organizers claimed the gatherings were regulated with masking and social distancing requirements.
But in reality, many Germans came together, maskless, by the dozens in indoor spaces, sitting tightly across long tables as they drank beer, yelled, and laughed — spitting all over each other particles that can carry the coronavirus and transmit the disease.
It was emblematic of the kind of freedom, beyond Oktoberfest, that Germans embraced when they came back home from summer holidays, pouring into risky indoor spaces and disregarding some of the precautions recommended by experts and officials to contain Covid-19.”
“Officials seemed content to keep letting the virus spread at a faster rate, letting things get worse bit by bit. Some state leaders resisted anything resembling a lockdown; North Rhine-Westphalia School Minister Yvonne Gebauer, bolstered by regional cases dropping to the national average, argued masks in classrooms were “no longer necessary.”
These state leaders were backed by vocal anti-lockdown segments of the population, which marched in the streets in August to oppose Covid-related restrictions. The initial success against the virus — and the short-term economic damage a lockdown would bring — had also left more of the public cool on the need for harsher rules.
By the end of October, the scenario Merkel warned about early in the pandemic when she explained exponential spread to a worldwide audience, came true: Daily new Covid-19 cases in Germany multiplied by seven times in the span of the month.
The success of the past few months had built complacency, and the federal system that allowed Jena to experiment with masks now suffocated further progress. The country’s 16 state governments and Merkel’s federal government couldn’t come to an agreement until it was too late, after they saw the results of exponential spread firsthand.”
“Public fatigue with Covid-19 — that coronamüde — also played a role. Based on his own analysis, Christian Karagiannidis, a researcher and ICU doctor at Witten/Herdecke University, told me that the second set of lockdowns was only “50 percent [as effective] as that from the first wave.” He added, “People are more or less fed up. They are tired. They are not adherent to the measures that were implemented by the German government.””
“Merkel appeared to see much of this coming. As Germany prepared to reopen last summer, she called the country’s success in fighting Covid-19 at the time “fragile,” adding that Germany should be “smart and careful” in the coming months, regularly reevaluating the rules it set in place. But Merkel’s constant message of caution ultimately wasn’t enough to counter a fragmented federalist system — especially as politicians began competing to eventually replace her.”
“German solidarity had major systemic forces stacked against it: a federalist system, a political battle to replace Merkel as head of the government, and a long pandemic that fatigued populations across Europe and the rest of the globe.”
“in 1989, I entered a world where Nebraska straddled the middle of the political spectrum. But since then, the state has drifted so far from the center it’s hard to remember it was ever there. Using DW-NOMINATE data from the congressional vote tallying website Voteview, we can see just how far Nebraska’s political representatives have drifted rightward in the last thirty years. As you can see in the chart below, the average ideology score of Nebraska’s U.S. representatives and senators, as measured by DW-NOMINATE’s first dimension, shifted more than half a point between 1990 and 2020.1 Put in today’s terms, in 1990, the average Nebraskan in Congress was similar in ideology to outgoing Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, a moderate; whereas today she would more closely resemble Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who isn’t the most conservative Republican in Congress (that’s Sen. Mike Lee), but still drifts pretty far to the right on the ideological spectrum.”
“the Electoral College has always favored smaller states like Nebraska. But it is only somewhat recently that these states have heavily favored Republicans.”
“So what’s driving Nebraska’s (and other states’) rightward shift? In part, it has to do with the nationalization of American politics. Since the 1990s, Democratic voters have moved to the left on issues such as health care and immigration, while Republicans have become more likely to identify as conservative as their moderate candidates have dwindled. And in turn, this nationalization and polarization has made it more difficult for local candidates to successfully create their own platforms. For example, as governor and senator, Nelson often broke from his own party in an attempt to attract conservative voters, taking stances like advocating for a “hard barrier” to prevent illegal immigration or supporting various anti-abortion measures. But the days of candidates creating their own platforms are largely over, and the share of registered Democratic voters in Nebraska has also dropped.”
“This trend extends to lower levels of government, too, like the state legislature and city councils. Republican state lawmakers have also tried to eliminate prenatal care and repeal in-state tuition for immigrants, while giving local police the power to question the immigration status of anyone they suspect of living in the country illegally. A few towns have even passed ordinances that formally ban undocumented immigrants from renting property. All this is happening in a state that, until recently, settled a high number of refugees.
Meanwhile, on the education front, Republican lawmakers have leaned into national Republicans’ growing aversion toward public education, trying to eliminate Nebraska’s democratically elected board of education, while perpetual tax cuts and exemptions have led to two-thirds of Nebraska’s school districts receiving no general financial assistance from the state, which has contributed to public schools in rural Nebraska having “the most inequitable [state aid] distribution in the nation,” according to a nationwide study by the think tank, The Rural School and Community Trust. This is all in a state where Republicans once implemented income and sales taxes to increase K-12 schools’ funding, among a host of other progressive legislation.
But lest one think the effects of nationalization have completely remade states like Nebraska, many Nebraskans disagree with the GOP’s positions. Through ballot initiatives, for instance, Nebraska voters have approved a higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion and casino gambling, even though Republicans officials, who continue to cruise to statewide victories, have opposed these measures.”
““If you ask people to vote for things that might be in their own interest, and you explain the issue to them in one paragraph on the ballot, they will vote for the thing that is good for them,” said Ari Kohen, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “But you can’t ask them to give up their party affiliation.”
People are reluctant to switch parties, but they can be swayed to change their mind about a specific cause, particularly when an issue is presented outside of a partisan context. State Sen. Tony Vargas, a Democrat in Omaha, told me that he thought Medicaid expansion passed — even though Nelson encountered a brouhaha over a similar issue just eight years prior— because it wasn’t tied to a particular politician or party. “If our ballot said ‘expanding Obamacare,’ I feel like people would have voted against it,” Vargas said. “Instead, we said ‘expanding Medicaid and addressing the gap.’ … It’s a lot harder to attack the issue. It’s much easier to attack the person.””
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“there are three trends that we can point to. The first is the steady nationalization of American politics. The second is the sorting of Democrats and Republicans along urban/rural and culturally liberal/culturally conservative lines, and the third is the increasingly narrow margins in national elections.
The combination of these three trends has turned Washington, D.C., into a high-stakes battle where cross-party compromise is difficult, and both sides are increasingly holding out for complete control.
Sixty years ago, state and local politics loomed larger than they do now, which meant national parties operated more like loose labels whose main function was to come together every four years to argue over who should run for president under that party. As President Eisenhower reportedly quipped as late as 1950, “There is not one Republican Party, there are 48 state Republican parties.” The same was true of the Democratic Party at the time. By the 1970s, in fact, many political observers declared that partisan politics had reached their end, with split-ticket voting hitting record-high levels as candidates successfully ran on local issues and pledges to better serve their constituents.
But beneath the surface, the parties were realigning. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and the culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s not only turned conservative Democrats into Republicans and liberal northeastern Republicans into Democrats, it also shifted the focus of politics such that Washington became the arbiter of national values. National parties began building up major fundraising and campaign consultant-driven operations, helping to standardize their messaging so that it actually meant something to vote for a Democrat or a Republican.”
“Cultural values are much more connected to geography than economic values. Both the rich and poor live in cities, suburbs and exurbs. But those who are socially liberal tend to live in cities, whereas those who are socially conservative tend to inhabit small towns. This partisan sorting on cultural issues has thus generated a significant partisan density divide. And because geography also corresponds to racial and ethnic diversity (basically, cities are multicultural and exurbs are mostly white), this adds another division onto the partisan divide: race.
With all these identities accumulating on top of each other, partisanship has become a kind of “mega-identity,” as political scientist Lilliana Mason argues, with party identification standing for much, much more. In fact, it’s reached the point that when you meet somebody, you can immediately size them up as a “Trump voter” or a “Biden voter.” That kind of easy stereotyping leads us to see the other party as distant and different. And typically, things that are distant and different are also more threatening.”
“the parties themselves actually have a lot of internal division, which means they share a version of the same dilemma: Republicans and Democrats can’t please all the different voters and groups who fall into their party and want their issue to be prioritized. But in a polarized two-party system, they can make it clear why the other party is bad.”
“For 30 years, Stuart Stevens was one of the most influential operatives in Republican politics. He was Mitt Romney’s top strategist in 2012, served in key roles on both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, and worked on dozens of congressional and gubernatorial campaigns — building one of the best winning records in politics. Then Stevens watched his party throw its support behind a man who stood against everything he believed in, or thought he believed in.
Most dissidents from Trumpism take a familiar line: They didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left them. But for Stevens, Trump forced a more fundamental rethinking: The problem, he believes, is not that the GOP became something it wasn’t; it’s that many of those within it — including him — failed to see what it actually was. In Stevens’s new book, It Was All a Lie, he delivers a searing indictment of the party he helped build, and his role in it.”
“When you’re a hobbyist, you’re learning the wrong information and practicing the wrong skills. You are typically learning about big national news items, and oftentimes it’s just drama. So a hobbyist might learn all the details of the Mueller report and feel that’s important to know and will spend hours and hours on it.
But then if you asked him how he could get involved on some issues of importance in his local community or in his state, or where the pressure points are in his community to influence government, he has no idea. He’s just caught up in the national news cycle and he’s not actually improving anything.
The hobbyist is also learning the wrong political skills. Online politics is all about provocation and signaling outrage. But changing people’s minds, turning your vote into many votes, requires empathy and face-to-face engagement. Not only are you not doing this online or when watching cable news, you’re learning exactly the wrong skill set.”