There is no Democratic or Republican way to land on the moon.
I was 10 years old on the Sunday afternoon of July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 made its more-hairy-than-we-realized touchdown on the lunar surface and Neil Armstrong famously said, “The Eagle has landed.” Even at the tail end of the fraught and chaotic 1960s, it was one day nobody in America was thinking about politics. Instead, more than 94% of U.S. households with a TV set shared a sense of wonder at U.S. know-how that made the seemingly impossible happen.
When the three-man mission had blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Democratic ex-president Lyndon Johnson and current GOP vice president Spiro Agnew sat together in the VIP section (pictured at top) and watched with awe. (The equivalent today would be Donald Trump and Kamala Harris hanging out. ... Think about it.) The happy zeitgeist was best captured by CBS anchor Walter Cronkite — when the most trusted man in America could still be a journalist — who listened to Armstrong announce the mission had reached the lunar surface and fumbled for words, taking off his glasses and rubbing his hands before blurting out, “Woo, boy.”
Tuesday will mark the 52nd anniversary of the date that an American was the first human to walk on the moon. It should be a moment not only to reflect on that historic high point, but to celebrate another scientific breakthrough that was also mostly born in the U.S.A. The record-time development of COVID-19 vaccines that have already saved thousands of lives and — under the best circumstances — could wind down the deadliest global pandemic in more than a century.
But this is not 1969.
There is, we are finding out rather painfully, a Democratic and a Republican way to do vaccines. Just travel to a place like Mountain Home, Arkansas — in a state where Trump got 62% of the vote last year — where the largest medical center is jammed with coronavirus patients, in a county where more than two-thirds of residents aren’t vaccinated and interest in the jab is low. (”It was just terrible,” a 68-year-old widow with chronic pulmonary disease told the New York Times of her COVID-19 ordeal — before adding she still won’t get vaccinated.)
In neighboring Tennessee, the top immunization official was fired last week under pressure from Republican lawmakers because she aggressively promoted vaccines for teens. “I am afraid for my state,” Dr. Michelle Fiscus said in a statement after she was sacked. Health officials in the GOP-dominated state immediately justified her fears by buckling under political pressure and stopping all vaccine outreach to teenagers — not just on COVID-19, but also for flu, measles, mumps, rubella, and human papillomavirus, or HPV, among others.
It was a stunning embrace of ignorance over science, but not an isolated event.
“We probably would still have polio in this country if we had the kind of false information that’s being spread now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Saturday. He’d been asked about the promotion of vaccine refusal, laced with medical falsehoods, on right-wing outlets like Fox News that has been embraced by GOP leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading 2024 White House contender. DeSantis’ political shop has even been selling T-shirts that proclaim, “DON’T FAUCI MY FLORIDA” — even as 20% of the nation’s new COVID-19 cases are coming from the Sunshine State.
As Cronkite might say if he were still with us, “Woo boy” — but with exasperation, not delight.
If you’re thinking that something has radically changed in America in the 52 years since Armstrong bounded down the stairs of the lunar module to take “one giant leap for mankind,” you would be correct. A new Gallup poll released last week shows that confidence in science among Republicans has dropped by an astonishing 27% since 1975, shortly after NASA wound down moon exploration. During this same nearly half-century, faith in science has actually increased among Democrats and independents. The gap between the two parties over science is now wider than for all but a couple of American institutions.
Indeed, it’s remarkable how closely this stunning drop in GOP voter confidence in science — a high 72% in 1975, but just 45% today — tracks with America’s growing vaccination divide between “red states” and “blue states.” Likewise, almost 30% of Republicans said in a separate survey last month that they refuse to get the vaccine — a critical reason why experts now fear the United States can’t reach the herd immunity needed for the pandemic to peter out.
What on earth has happened since the moon landing? It’s important to remember that in the largely upbeat (though also seriously flawed) America after 1945′s victory in World War II, there was a virtuous upward cycle of middle-class prosperity and technological breakthroughs— at the Pentagon (computers, rockets, and of course the A-bomb) but also in the home (TVs and dishwashers). American Exceptionalism and the nation’s scientific prowess were seen as inextricably linked, culminating with 1969′s big win in the space race.
Less than a year after Apollo 11 came the first Earth Day — scientists warning that industrial progress threatened environmental destruction — and also the massacre at Kent State, amid a backlash of the so-called “silent majority” against what was happening on college campuses where many researchers are employed. Just like the lunar module, distrust in modern science was engineered by humans — billionaire industrialists who funded pro-fossil-fuel think tanks, and right-wing talk radio and later cable TV ratings seekers who mocked effete “tree huggers.”
Indeed, wealthy capitalists and the politicians who aided the backlash and rode it to victories — Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan — were so successful that distrust in science and the conspiracy theories that flow from that distrust now spread as virally as COVID-19 itself, among everyday folks on social media sites like Facebook. Albeit with an occasional booster shot from the most cynical media celebrities like Fox’s Tucker Carlson.
The masses are receptive to misinformation because America is increasingly divided not by its traditional fault lines, but by one huge determining factor: whether or not you attended college. As the U.S. increasingly cleaves into a Democratic Party composed heavily of college grads in cosmopolitan cities and suburbs, and a GOP foaming with anti-elite resentments, Republicans increasingly lack faith in our universities (their confidence dropping sharply from 56% to 39% just between 2015 and 2018) and their science departments. As more and more scientists denounced the right’s hero, Donald Trump, the gulf grew even wider.
Now we are witnessing firsthand the consequences of a society that’s chosen to willfully ignore its leading climatologists and infectious-disease experts. The increasing reports from overcrowded ICUs in low-vaccine hotspots like the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas about people fighting — needlessly — for their lives on ventilators are heartbreaking. And news of growing wildfires and drought in the parched, overheated American West is just terrifying, a reminder of our failure to curb greenhouse-gas pollution fast enough.
Or not — at least not to the conservatives who live in the smoky shadows of rural Oregon’s wildfires.
“Global warming?” one farmer dismissively asked a Washington Post reporter not far from the massive, uncontrolled Bootleg Fire, as one of his friends muttered, “Yeah, right.”
The ranchers and farmers of the rural Northwest are much quicker to blame pointy-headed federal bureaucrats than the global rise in temperatures, even after a heat wave that alarmed climate experts just killed at least 800 people in the region. The entrenched hostility toward even discussing climate change in Trump country (he won 70% in rural Oregon even as he lost the state) bodes poorly for the massive and necessary environmental package now on Capitol Hill.
America is continuing to unravel in this long hot summer of 2021. And without the can-do spirit of the 1960s’ moon missions, it’s hard to see how we’re going to pick ourselves up off the drought-parched ground and make the tough-but-smart choices to turn things around. Heck, just look at what’s happened to space exploration since 7/20/69. A nation that’s utterly lost faith in the notions of shared purpose and “a public good” has increasingly defunded NASA while the heavens become the personal playground of a handful of spoiled billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk — funded by tax avoidance that has made the rest of us so angry and cynical.
The worst part? Anger and distrust between those with the highest faith in science and today’s deniers the self-appointed enlightened ones vs. those who resent them — are so great and now so self-perpetuating that there’ll never be a quick fix.
The ideas I’ve embraced for bridging the college/non-college divide in America — like free college and trade school for the multiracial working class, and an 18-year-old “gap year” of universal national service — could take decades to bear fruit. And that’s assuming we can put down our bear spray long enough to even make them happen.
It only took eight years to carry out JFK’s audacious vow to send a human to the moon and safely return them to earth. When it comes to today’s thornier problems like climate change, we’re going to have to build the spacecraft while it’s already in orbit.
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