Alison O'Connor: Even slaughter of school children can’t change a polarised America

The divisions in US society are strong and are reflected in the population's political affiliations
Alison O'Connor: Even slaughter of school children can’t change a polarised America

Police officers near a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Picture: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty

It is impossible to understand a so-called civilised society tolerating the mass shooting of little children while they are attending school.

How mind-bending to think the latest atrocity at a primary school in the US — where 19 primary school children and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle and wearing body armour — may generate little or no practical response.

This horrendous incident in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, brought to mind some really good public service journalism highlighting the polarity in American society, which has stuck with me since I came across it.

Political affiliation

Published late last year, the analysis by National Public Radio (NPR) related to how the uptake of vaccines for Covid depended on political affiliation and how that affiliation might significantly increase your risk of dying.

Since May 2021, people living in US counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump, during the last presidential election, were nearly three times as likely to die from Covid-19 as those who lived in areas that went for now President Biden.

Donald Trump: His strategy of division was blatantly based around creating a more riven society. Picture: Joe Maiorana/AP
Donald Trump: His strategy of division was blatantly based around creating a more riven society. Picture: Joe Maiorana/AP

NPR examined deaths per 100,000 people in roughly 3,000 US counties from May 2021, the point at which vaccinations widely became available. 

The data showed that counties that voted 60% or higher for Trump in November 2020 had 2.73 times the death rates of those that voted for Biden. Counties with an even higher share of the Trump vote saw higher Covid-19 mortality rates.

In October, the most Republican 10th of the country saw death rates six times higher than the Democratic 10th, according to Charles Gaba, an independent healthcare analyst who worked with NPR on the project.

According to NPR, the trend was robust, even when controlling for age, the primary demographic risk for Covid-19 mortality. 

The data also revealed a major contributing factor to death rate difference: The higher the vote share for Trump, the lower the vaccination rate.

Partisanship

It also pointed out that polls conducted around that time showed partisanship was now the single strongest predictor of whether an American was vaccinated or not.

So it is not just gun control laws, or the lack of them, that are causing premature deaths among US citizens. However, in the case of those who do not receive vaccines and subsequently die from Covid, they do so by their own choice. School children shot dead at their desks have no choice.

Gun ownership

Data from US pollsters Gallup show Republicans are more likely than others to own guns. Around 60% of Republicans live in a house where there is a gun, compared to 31% of Democrats and 39% of independents.

Frank Newport, a senior scientist at Gallup polling, writing last year on American public opinion and gun violence, said that Republicans, even those without guns, are much more likely than others to oppose new laws regulating gun sales.

An 11-year-old sits with a sign bearing the names of the school shooting victims during a prayer vigil in Uvalde, Texas. Picture: Jae C Hong/AP
An 11-year-old sits with a sign bearing the names of the school shooting victims during a prayer vigil in Uvalde, Texas. Picture: Jae C Hong/AP

“Gun legislation is, in fact, one of the touchstone or symbolic issues — like climate change — that epitomise the nation’s substantial ideological and partisan divide,” he wrote.

A recently recorded gap of 63 points on the need for stricter gun laws between Republicans and Democrats is the highest on record over the past two decades.

Despite this week’s slaughter, or the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Conneticut, in which 26 people died, including 20 children aged five and six, the prospects of a change in laws looks slim

Republican law makers are reliant on votes from their gun supporting constituents and on huge amounts of money from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which knows the power of political donations.

Guns and vaccines are not the only prisms through which to view the starkness of the partisanship which exists in the US today.

'Them' and 'us' approach

It can be seen in the significant deterioration in race relations and in the decisions of the Supreme Court, most recently witnessed in the leaked verdict on the landmark abortion Roe v Wade ruling.

The ‘them’ and ‘us’ process was well under way when former president Trump was elected in 2016. However, his strategy of division was blatantly based around creating a more riven society, particularly evident in his support of white supremacists and violence, which culminated in the Capitol Hill riots on January 6 last year.

Whatever tensions already existed, Trump set out to aggravate them for his own benefit. Media has played a significant role in this, with daily cable news output fuelling rage and exaggerating the sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Social media further fuels that anger, allowing wild claims to be circulated and for the spread of serious misinformation. No threshold, it appears, is too low.

Naively we now know, there was hope that with the election of Joe Biden the situation would improve significantly.

Certainly Biden's response to the Texas shooting was powerful and eloquent but the debasement of the Republican Party appears unstoppable

What is tolerated and said by some of its most high-profile members, such as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, is frequently extraordinary. She posted on Twitter after the Texas school shooting: “We don’t need more gun control, we need to return to God.”

President Joe Biden arrives at the White House to speak to the nation following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Picture: Manuel Balce/AP
President Joe Biden arrives at the White House to speak to the nation following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Picture: Manuel Balce/AP

In the past she has questioned the legitimacy of school shootings, claiming they were staged and whether a plane really hit the Pentagon on 9/11.

She is, of course, a mini-Trump but will hopefully (although you can rule nothing out) never scale his heights.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Republicans have just chosen as nominee for governor Doug Mastriano, a state senator who marched on the capitol on January 6. A vocal Trump supporter, he led the local effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election result. This is a man who wrote his masters thesis on the need for the military to protect the country from a left-wing-led "Hitlerian Putsch".

There are any number of books written on these ever widening cracks in US society.

In one of those, Why We’re Polarized, New York Times columnist Ezra Klein writes of the importance of understanding that we exist in relationship with our political institutions. They are changed by us and we are changed by them.

“That logic, put simply, is this: to appeal to a more polarized [stet] public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public.

“This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a more polarized public, institutions must polarize further, when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and so on.”

You can see the logic. However, how do you pull back from such extremes, where people will literally die, or allow others to be killed, to remain true to what they perceive to be their superior political beliefs.

It’s really difficult to watch it all play out.

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