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David A. Hopkins

So Long to Anthony Fauci, Unlikely Avatar of Polarization

Why did a public-health bureaucrat prove so divisive? Because he perfectly encapsulated a widening split in US politics.

A different world. 

A different world. 

Photographer: Deanne Fitzmaurice/San Francisco Chronicle

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who announced his pending retirement from the National Institutes of Health on Aug. 22, worked for more than 50 years as a little-known civil servant in a low-profile federal agency. He spent his final two years in government as a highly divisive public figure.

Fauci’s sudden rise to national prominence was the accidental consequence of an unforeseen global catastrophe. But he then, perhaps inevitably, found himself enmeshed in today’s polarized political battles. After all, partisan conflict in America increasingly separates those who think well-credentialed experts like Fauci should exert major influence over policy making from those who find that prospect unappealing — or even frightening.

When the Covid-19 crisis thrust a sudden late-career fame upon him in the early weeks of 2020, Fauci initially won broad respect from Americans of both parties. As the pandemic persisted, most Democrats continued to be persuaded by Fauci’s public statements exhorting citizens to adopt a cautious approach to socializing and to seek vaccinations once they became available.

But Republicans soon tired of Covid-related restrictions and grew suspicious that Fauci and his colleagues in public health were not handling the disease effectively or honestly. By December 2021, Gallup was measuring Fauci’s job approval rating at 85% among Democrats and just 19% among Republicans — matching the wide partisan gaps in citizens’ views of traditional political leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

As the pandemic wore on, Republican politicians directed increasingly aggressive attacks toward Fauci. Senator Ted Cruz denounced him as “the most dangerous bureaucrat in the history of the country.” Senator Rand Paul referred to him as a wannabe “dictator-in-chief.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, said of Fauci last month: "someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”

Support for Fauci among Democratic officials, meanwhile, has remained strong. Vice President Kamala Harris recently praised him as an “incredible public servant" who had “saved countless lives around the world.” Senator Dick Durbin described Fauci earlier this year as “a classic example of American excellence.”

This depth of feeling on both sides illustrates how Fauci came to hold a symbolic importance in the minds of Americans that extended far beyond the actual powers and duties of his position in government. Fauci’s ability to inspire simultaneous reverence among Democrats and contempt among Republicans reveals an important difference in the self-definition of each party.

According to many Democrats’ ideal vision of politics, the government makes policy decisions under the guidance of credentialed experts. Democrats view these specialists as drawing on superior knowledge and academic training to evaluate evidence accurately and make recommendations grounded in fact. The popular liberal lawn sign that reads “In this house, we believe science is real” is a reliable clue that the people inside view figures like Fauci with respect and deference. Fauci has sometimes presented himself as a personification of the scientific enterprise, arguing in a November 2021 interview that “scientists try to say this is the truth, based on data. That’s what we live by.” He went on: “And if you’re attacking me, you’re really attacking science.”

But as the Republican Party has turned in a more populist direction, its supporters have become more convinced that experts’ assertions of superior knowledge and objectivity mask their true motivation: to gain power for themselves and impose liberalism on the country. Republican distrust has extended beyond government bureaucrats — a longstanding target — to encompass other positions of traditional intellectual authority, such as scientists, educators and reporters. Conservative perceptions that these occupations are disproportionately and increasingly held by liberals are generally accurate; Fauci, for one, has left little mystery where his own political sympathies lie.

This partisan divergence seems likely to be self-perpetuating. Now that the Democratic Party is the favored political home of most college-educated voters, it will face continued encouragement from sympathetic constituents to adopt policies favored by experts. Republican politicians, who still receive most of their electoral support from voters without college degrees, have equally strong incentives to position themselves in opposition to intellectual elites and the institutions they control. Dr. Fauci will soon depart his post, but the larger conflict that enveloped his final years in government won’t be going anywhere.