Politicians Need to Stay out of Science


Courtesy of Angela Wei ’21.

Wearing a mask to protect from Covid-19 is consensus among medical professionals around the world. Yet, in America, wearing a mask is political. According to a Pew Research Center survey 86% of Democrats say that masks should be worn most of the time, in contrast to the 52% of Republicans. These results show that anti-mask sentiment, originally a fringe opinion, is now mainstream in the US, brewing distrust in the government and transforming the anti-mask struggle into a partisan one. But how did the wariness of masks turn political and mainstream and why is it endemic to America? There are many possible causes, but ultimately, the insertion of politics into public health and the weaponization of America’s core values of individual liberty were the two most impactful factors in the politicization of masks, consequently deepening the divide between the two parties. 

First, the involvement of political figures in the discussion on public health furthered partisan disharmony. Politicians are polarizing figures. When a politician speaks, there will invariably be doubters and believers. Therefore, amidst a pandemic, public health officials, rather than politicians, ought to be the de facto spokespeople as they are impartial voices who present the facts in an objective manner.

Yet, in the United States, Dr. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, is not viewed as the spokesperson. Neither is any other doctor, for that matter. Instead, the spokesperson is President Donald Trump, who, with a 42% approval rating (according to the latest polls by Selzer and Co.) but a strong support base, is arguably the most polarizing figure in American politics. He has, throughout the pandemic, consistently downplayed the effect of the virus and frequently presented masks as optional. This is in direct contradiction to Dr. Fauci’s announcements in White House press briefings, where he emphasized the importance of wearing a mask. This discrepancy in the announcements between public health officials and politicians sends a convoluted message to the American people, fueling the fire of doubt and leaving them confused about whom to trust.

Various other politicians, typically Republicans, have also involved their personal opinions in matters which are concrete and  scientific. Many Republican governors, especially in Southern states, have been reluctant in issuing mask mandates, despite clear advice from medical professionals. Democratic governors, on the other hand, have typically been more receptive to the heeding of doctors and public health officials. These partisan differences in the responses to the virus have only further politicized the idea of masks, deepening the political divides of the country. 

Second, the political ideas of freedom and liberty, largely present in American culture, have been skewed to justify anti-mask sentiment, only leading to more polarization. Many Americans opposed to masks emphasized their personal liberties and the so-called “god-given right to breathe,” feeding into the baseless claim that masks somehow inhibit breathing. The American values of individual liberty and the practice of wearing a mask are compatible, obviously, as a mask does not inhibit the personal freedoms of an individual. However, these falsified claims are taken to be true and are largely perpetuated by social media, where pseudoscience is pervasive. Consequently, these themes of God and freedom, distorted by anti-maskers, are largely prevalent on the right and are frequently used in its rhetoric, appealing to a more republican base and only furthering partisan disharmony. 

With the public’s involvement in politics, the pseudoscience rampant on social media, and the exploitation of religion and American values, we can now see how the seemingly obvious practice of wearing a mask has transformed into a source of partisan dissent. Ultimately, anti-maskers, who weaponize these ideas to justify a disregard for the well-being of fellow Americans, spread dangerous misinformation and worsen the state of this nation are undoubtedly a cause of the drastically high number of Coronavirus cases in America. Thus, unlike what government officials in America have done, politicians have the obligation to turn over the responsibilities of the spokesperson to public health officials in times like these.