What Americans' refusal to wear COVID-19 masks says about politics

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A surgical mask is abandoned on the ground. Why are some Americans still reluctant to wear a mask? Science shows that wearing one helps curb the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Amy Ta.

Public health officials and many doctors are adamant that wearing face masks can greatly reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Vice President Mike Pence and Fox News are also suggesting that wearing a mask in public makes sense. But President Trump and some Americans are still resisting masks. Does America’s devotion to liberty and rejection of government overreach explain why America is struggling to contain the spread of the virus? 

To understand the history and psychology behind the mask resistance, host Warren Olney talks with Catherine A. Sanderson, Life Sciences Professor at Amherst College and author of “Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels;” and Clay Jenkinson, editor at large of the national magazine “Governing” and host of the podcast "The Thomas Jefferson Hour."

Warren Olney: One of the mottos of the U.S.  is “don't tread on me.” Is that what the mask resistance is all about?

Clay Jenkinson:It’s partly about public ignorance. As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘If you expect to be a nation ignorant and free, you expect something that never has been and never can be in a state of civilization.’ Well we're testing that right now, and there are millions of Americans who will resist doing the right thing for themselves and their neighbors, just because they have an attitude that the government and no outside entity, including experts, should ever tell them what to do. 

And of course, it doesn't help that the President of the United States is the chief rebel. If he were modeling thoughtful, scientifically-based public health behavior by wearing a mask and talking about these precautions, millions of people would comply, albeit reluctantly. But when they have a cheerleader who says, ‘Oh, just go for it, do whatever you want, it'll go away,’ those people become empowered, and their ignorance then becomes a public health threat to the rest of us.”

Americans in some states have no problem with wearing masks. Has this become a regional issue? 

Clay Jenkinson: “Yes, it's blue versus red. For example, I just flew back from Portland, Oregon to Bismarck, North Dakota. And in the Portland International Airport, 90% or more of the people wore masks. In Denver, where I had a layover, about 80% of the people wore masks. But the other 20% looked kind of defiant and angry. And when I got to Bismarck International Airport, about 3% of the people wore masks, and they were being sneered at by those who regard this as a hoax, who believe that masks are really just a way of saying you're a Democrat or a liberal, and that they have very little whatsoever to do with public health. 

So that's the state of things. We've allowed ourselves to weaponize even public health measures on really silly partisan lines, and it’s deplorable. It would be one thing if this were just attitudes, but this affects my health. People don't understand that wearing a mask is not primarily about you or me, it's about everybody else.”

Are some people encouraged by others to act in a certain way? 

Catherine Sanderson: “Absolutely, it really speaks to the power again of social norms. If we had a president saying everyone should wear a mask, it's very normal, we would actually probably see a rise in mask wearing, particularly in the red states. I see some evidence already that we're maybe moving in that direction. 

Vice President Mike Pence is now wearing a mask, which he was definitely not doing earlier. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted about the importance of everyone wearing a mask. 

But again, social norms are formed based on leaders. For some people, that might be the governor of their state. For some people, a sports hero. For other people, it might be of course President Trump.”

What role does gender play in mask resistance?

Catherine Sanderson: “It's not as simple as male or female. It's probably not as simple as red state or blue state. What is most important is that if in a given community you reach a tipping point of maybe 25% of people doing a certain behavior, as long as they're the right 25% of people, people who are role models, people who have social capital, you can actually sway a community. 

As we start thinking about letting college students return to classes, letting high school students go back and so on, it's going to be extraordinarily important for people to make sure that the norms and the models in a particular environment are wearing a mask and being safe. Because that will encourage other people in a given group or community to do the same.”

Clay Jenkinson: “I agree with Catherine Sanderson's point that a critical mass can be reached. So if 5% are wearing masks, that gives everyone cover who doesn't wish to. If 25% are wearing masks, [it’s] harder to resist. If 60% are wearing masks, then you feel you almost have to get onboard. We need to see people taking that leadership role.” 

How is the Great Depression analogous to today? How did former presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt approach it?

Clay Jenkinson: “Herbert Hoover said, ‘Let's just ride this thing out, these laissez-faire capitalist things will get better. Adam Smith was right, the less government tampers with the economy, the better.’ Not only was he wrong, but he was repudiated in an extraordinary way by the American people who elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who then went on to win three subsequent elections, serving almost four terms as president, which was unprecedented. 

I think we should all learn a lesson from that. President Trump is committing an act of self destruction in the way that he's handling this. The American people may not be highly educated about these things, but they do have common sense. And common sense is telling them that Pence is probably right and President Trump is probably wrong. 

… The way the president has handled this is almost an exact analogy to Herbert Hoover in 1929 and 1930. And the polls are showing this. The American people are kind of rooting for Trump in some ways. But they think, ‘Well, wait a minute, a moment like this, you want actual leadership. You want adults in the room, and this guy is sort of behaving like a bully and an adolescent when in our hearts we know we really do need to take the responsible social steps.’ So I think that he's probably costing himself reelection by not stepping up and behaving like a true leader here.”




Warren Olney


Andrea Brody