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The West is on fire. Covid is exploding. American policy is stagnating.

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Mermaids have become quite difficult to ignore.

Forest fires rage through the western United States and Canada, spreading the smoke so widely that the sun has turned red and people’s eyes and throats have stung as far as New York City. One of the fires is so large that it generates its own climate. The West is experiencing its fourth heat wave in less than two months. The number of coronavirus cases is rising nationwide again, mostly among unvaccinated people, and states like Florida and Missouri are experiencing devastating and deadly outbreaks.

But, despite the raging crises, the cogs of the U.S. government appear more stuck than ever in part because of the intensity of U.S. polarization, and in part because Republican members of Congress have remained opposed to even some. measures that polls show bipartisan majorities of voters support, such as tighter limits on emissions from power plants and vehicles.

Meaningful action on climate change is only imaginable through executive action by President Biden and a party-line budget reconciliation bill, as Coral Davenport, climate reporter for The Times, told me this month. ci, and even such measures may not be ambitious enough to meet nations’ climate goals.

Several million Republicans still refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and condemn the Biden administration’s vaccination campaign. They did so even as startling accounts from medical workers in the hardest-hit states make it clear how the Delta variant is wreaking havoc on unvaccinated people.

The problem is, in polarized times, political elites have a vested interest in politicizing these things from the start, and so people who pay attention to politics are picking up the framework used by elected officials and the media, Jaime E. Settle, associate professor of government and director of the Social Media and Political Psychology Laboratory at the College of William & Mary.

Even catastrophic and highly visible events like forest fires and heat waves don’t necessarily move the needle, because what happens is people interpret these events from the frame they started with. , said Settle. So if a person starts to disbelieve the established science of human-induced climate change, they’re likely to look at the recent evidence for climate change and say, Well that’s not proof or, C is proof, but humans are not to blame for it. .

Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale who studies political polarization and political violence, said today’s environment was reminiscent of previous eras of extreme division, including the 1790s, 1850s and 1960.

Something these times share is when things are so polarized, that there is a lack of trust in just about everything, a lack of trust in information, a lack of trust on either side in the news. ‘other, a lack of confidence in national institutions and their ability to manage things, Freeman said. Even though these things are happening right in front of us, so many people are wary of the information they get. You cannot go beyond this basic mistrust to get to the facts or even to the things of extreme urgency.

She added: If you don’t trust lawmakers, the press, and people in positions of authority outside the small sphere in which they operate, how the hell can you bring people together to tackle something more big ?

As my colleague Alex Burns wrote this month, the seismic events that would almost certainly have changed American policy in eras past are just not making a dent now. It may soon be known whether the American electorate is still capable of large-scale changes of opinion.

As for the ability to change a person’s perspective or acceptance of facts through personal conversations, Settle said the challenge is that we tend to base our arguments on what would change their mind, not about what would change someone else. And we don’t even have good forums to have these conversations.

There is a small but growing body of research on how you might be able to configure online interactions to improve them, she said, but the kind of organic options we currently have on social media and the comment threads is a disaster.

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