Friday, May 15, 2020

Politics and Pandemics, or When Selfishness Isn't a Virtue

As a professor who teaches Political Communication, and as a former broadcaster, I understand that lots of stuff politicians say is tailored to their core supporters, and meant to rally them to the politician's side in difficult times. Politicians from both sides have used this technique. But what has me concerned about our current president is not his constant dog-whistles to his base. It's that he seems to feel no loyalty to the rest of us, even in a time of crisis. And that really worries me, not because I disagree with his politics; but rather, because I see no evidence that he is committed to what used to be called the "common good"-- even in a time of great peril for our country.  

I'm sure you remember hearing the 1961 quote from John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what you what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country." Of course, the idea of sacrificing for the benefit of the country was not new. Previous presidents had spoken to us in times of crisis about putting aside our own personal needs to do what was best for our nation. Previous presidents had reminded us that we are all Americans and while we may sometimes see certain issues differently, we have more that unites us than divides us. Previous presidents called upon us to rise to the occasion, as Abraham Lincoln did in March 1861, only a few weeks before the Civil War began, when he said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."  

But I'm not hearing that kind of rhetoric from our current president. Nor am I hearing about self-sacrifice, or unity, or working together for the same goal. And as for the "better angels of our nature," this president sends out relentless verbal attacks directed at Democratic governors (who are trying their best to keep their citizens safe), and encourages people to abandon social distancing, not wear face coverings, and take to the streets to protest against... public health.   And as more than 85,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, I'm not hearing anything that resembles compassion or consolation.  Rather, I'm hearing a demand to "open the economy now," as he praises his supporters who come out to express their anger at the ongoing stay-at-home orders -- even those supporters who are carrying assault-style weapons or threatening reporters.

Don't get me wrong: I'm tired of this pandemic too. I desperately miss the autistic adult who has been in my life for 35 years; he isn't allowed to have visitors, other than his care-givers, and I haven't been allowed to see him since mid-March. My husband has a ruptured disk in his back and can hardly walk; he needs surgery but nobody could schedule it for over a month (not till next week, in fact). I have students who are struggling, due to a lack of good internet access or a chaotic home situation. And yes, I totally understand that many people are in dire financial straits.  But I'm not blaming my governor, whose stay-at-home orders reflect the fact that thousands of people are still getting this virus, and opening up the state will assure further outbreaks. Most of us here aren't happy about it, but we understand what the governor is trying to do. 

Meanwhile, I wish this president had a plan for solving our current problems. Using social media to insult his perceived enemies is not an example of showing leadership.  (And contrary to what he claims, the impending scope of the pandemic was known in January, but he downplayed it and avoided taking any action for more than a month). It would be nice if the president had a national strategy for more testing, more tracing, more personal protective equipment, reducing the spread of the virus in nursing homes or meat packing plants... instead of blaming the previous president, instead of putting out rude tweets at his perceived enemies, or launching verbal attacks on reporters, and instead of standing on the sidelines while some states get what they need and others don't. And above all, it would be nice if the president acted like a president and put the country first, instead of promoting more partisanship.

I never thought the concept of "public health" would be such a partisan issue. I never thought that some folks in red states would be saying the virus isn't that big a deal, no we won't wear masks, you can't make us practice social distancing, it's time to liberate our state from the tyranny of our governor. We can certainly debate whether the policies in some states are too restrictive; but is it really tyranny to try to prevent more outbreaks of disease? To have the president telling his followers to take to the streets and direct their outrage at Democratic governors is something I've never seen before. I can't imagine Lincoln or Kennedy or even George W. Bush doing anything so blatantly partisan during a major crisis.

And so, here we are, debating individual liberty ("I have a right to carry an AR-15 to the state house") versus the common good-- you may have the right to do it, but is it right to do it?  How does demonizing scientists like Dr. Fauci or spreading various conspiracy theories on social media make this pandemic go away? How does insulting your governor or insulting folks you disagree with make anything better?  At times like these, we need someone who can act like a leader, someone who can call upon us to work together to find solutions. Sad to say, all I see is a president who wants to keep us divided. And in such a circumstance, only the virus wins.