Editor’s Note: Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the editorial board at the Detroit Free Press. Her work has appeared in the Free Press, Politico and the Daily Beast. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Michigan is battling coronavirus, but it’s also facing a partisan war – and one with potentially deadly consequences. As Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is quickly learning, how citizens respond to the coronavirus pandemic may have a lot to do with who they vote for.
This week, polite political maneuvering exploded into open protests on the streets of Michigan’s capital, as people, many sporting MAGA gear and carrying Donald Trump/Mike Pence signs, descended on Lansing to oppose Whitmer’s latest stay-at-home measures.
Whitmer first issued a stay-home order at the end of March. Last week she extended the order through the end of April, restricting travel within the state and barring the purchase of non-essential items like paint, garden supplies and flooring. These new restrictions are all part of Whitmer’s efforts to limit points of contact among potential virus carriers – and keep consumers and non-essential employees from traveling to and from stores.
Pandemic response should be based on sound science and medical consensus, backed up legislation needed to ease the damage caused by an economic shutdown. It should not be led by partisan or financial interests in the state’s – or nation’s – capital.
While Wednesday’s protests were ostensibly aimed at what organizers call “excessive” quarantine rules, some of the protestors may have been more motivated by politics than a nuanced disagreement of the science or even the economic costs of the additional restrictions.
For background, Whitmer already has a strained relationship with her Republican counterparts in the state legislature, as they’ve wrangled over the state budget, road repair funding and school dollars.
The coronavirus crisis threatens more than roads or infrastructure, though. But that’s not how Michigan’s GOP leaders – or the vocal protesters who support them – see it.
State House Speaker Lee Chatfield waved an American flag from his Capitol office window, in support, during the protest. And State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has formed a task force to develop plans to re-open the economy. Both men are Republicans, from outstate, semi-rural communities.
And, on Thursday night, state lawmakers in both chambers introduced bills that would strip Whitmer of emergency powers assigned to the governor since 1945. (Whitmer has promised to veto the legislation.)
One reason that GOP leaders and their supporters might see things differently is that they have not been impacted as greatly by the virus. Wednesday’s protesters appear to be mostly white, and hailed from Michigan’s less-dense, more conservative western and northern parts, where the GOP holds greatest sway.
Contrast that to the liberal Detroit metropolitan area, with a large African American population concentrated in the city of Detroit, and accounting for the largest share of the close to 30,000 cases in the state.
As such, GOP lawmakers want to re-open the state, or at least the parts they represent, gambling that virus infection rates won’t rise among their constituents. That the in-person contact at Wednesday’s rally may have ensured that some rural areas will see more cases is an irony no one is eager to contemplate. Meanwhile, southeast Michiganders, witnessing the devastation of the pandemic firsthand, continue to largely support Whitmer’s emergency orders.
There’s another potential disconnect in Michigan: Operation Gridlock, as the protest was named, was conceived as a drive-in protest that would block Lansing streets. Organizers said they support some coronavirus restrictions around social distancing, but believed Whitmer has gone too far. As such, they say they planned a protest that would still maintain social distancing guidelines – without contributing to the spread of infection.
But several of the most visible protesters on Wednesday weren’t simply small business owners or out-of-work hourly wage earners making a safe and respectful point about the economic impact of the restrictions. Between 100 and 150 protesters got out of their cars to rally on the Capitol steps. Video of the event suggests few of those protesters followed social distancing recommendations – or wore masks or gloves.
And then there were a handful of protestors who displayed some hateful props – from a Confederate flag to a banner featuring a swastika.
The most extreme of these protestors do not. reflect the stated intentions of the organizers – and they are clearly in denial about the impact of the virus of their state, which ranks in the top five worst-hit states in the country.
Still, they’ve got Republican lawmakers’ attention.
Whitmer, meanwhile, is pleading with Michiganders to stay the course. Complying with the governor’s strict shutdown orders, she says, is the quickest road to normal.
There is some early evidence that Michigan’s coronavirus curve may be beginning to flatten. But whether we’ll be able to stick with the policies that have achieved this result will be a matter of bitter partisan contention.
And these protests are not limited to Michigan. We’ve already seen protests break out in several states, such as Kentucky and North Carolina – a further indication of just how dangerous the political divide in our country has become.
Whether Whitmer is ultimately hailed as a heroine largely depends on how the next few weeks play out. If the virus’ curve continues to flatten, will we praise Whitmer, and other governors who’ve followed the same path, for swift and decisive life-saving action? Or, will we say they’ve overreacted and we could have flattened the curve with far less drastic measures?
Expect that to be America’s next partisan divide.