On Tuesday, I wrote a Soriano’s Comment about how support for COVID mitigation is way way way higher than what media coverage of the “Open America Again” show-protests (or showtests) suggest. Multiple polls tell us that the showtesters and those who support them make up a fraction of the population. On Wednesday, Washington Post/University of Maryland released new polling numbers. Here are some highlights:
As of a week ago, 58% of the country supports current COVID-mitigation strategies and restrictions. Additionally, 20% support mitigation but feel that what we are not doing enough. Twenty-one-percent believe that what we are doing is too much. So, 78% support or want more impactful mitigation strategies. Twenty-one percent are the “Open America Again” crowd. Washington Post/U-Maryland also found that
86% support social distancing
80% support the wearing of masks
78% support stay-at-home orders
75% support avoiding friends who you don’t live with
Sooooo….despite news reports and punditry that suggest otherwise, America is fairly united in support for COVID-mitigation. Support for mitigation in general is high and it gets higher when people are asked about specific measures. At least 75% of Americans listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci. Just over 20% listen to Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and the Open showtesters. If this was a sports contest, the score would be Mitigation 78, Open 21. Mitigation would win in an embarrassing blow-out, yet, the Open crowd is getting way more attention than their numbers warrant. So why is reporting tilted towards the Open crowd?
The first reason is that President Trump is driving the Open push. If this was Citizen Trump tweeting nonsense and telling people to inject bleach, if the press paid him any mind, they would report him as the kook that he is. Unfortunately, Trump is president of the United States. His position is too important to ignore and his platform too big to dismiss. Even when Trump doesn’t drive the conversation, he is always in it.
Second: The Open mob is much louder than the Mitigation crowd. Openers are in the street, while Mitigation folks listen to public health officials and stay home. The Open crowd has “the stage” pretty much to itself and they exploit that advantage. Openers also defy medical advice and gather in crowds; Mitigation folks physically distance. By being willing to assemble crowds, Openers can create a visual spectacle that suggests that their numbers are larger than they are, something that Mitigation folks cannot do.
Third: Some in the mainstream media are addicted to the lazy convention of the Both Sides story. “On one side is Joe Open, on the other Jane Mitigate. These two people represent America and, because there are two sides to every coin, and both sides of a coin take up an equal amount of space, there must be two sides to every story with each side saying something of equal importance, merit and validity.”
So, when Trump says, “Warm weather will kill the virus” it is reported with as much agency as Fauci saying “We need to start testing now.” Both Sides. The mainstream media runs the “Obama is responsible for the coronavirus” story next to that of a blackballed scientist who says that the White House pressured scientists to champion quack cures. All of it is presented as legit news. Both Sides.
Right now, a growing handful of pundits and reporters, egged on by Republicans, are framing mask-wearing as a political statement. Absurd! Eighty-percent of the country supports wearing masks, a percentage so big that mask-wearing cannot be wholly political and besides, HEALTH!
Yeah yeah yeah, polls show that Democrats are more likely to support mask-wearing than Republicans, but not that Republicans are against mask-wearing. The Post/Maryland poll says that only one-third of Republicans are against mask-wearing. Seems that people wear masks because they trust science and follow medical advice, not because they favor Nancy Pelosi over Mitch McConnell. It also seems that Republicans are much more willing to follow science when they believe that their lives depend on it. This is all a bit too messy for a Both Sides story.
Republican politicians and Fox News pundits are also trying to politicize Anthony Fauci. Earlier in the week, Republican Senator Rand Paul went after Fauci, trying to frame Fauci’s public health warnings as ideological and rigid. Fauci ably put Paul in his place. Still, Fox’s Tucker Carlson – man with no science or medical background – rages against Fauci, calling him a “buffoon.” Trump routinely challenges Fauci.
When Fauci replies, he does as he did with Paul. He says that he follows the science. He tells us what the science says right now but always allows for further developments and is frank about what we do not know. When asked about public policy, he does what a public health official is supposed to do: Look at the science and make recommendations to his politician bosses, an act as political as a mechanic working on the Popemobile is religious. Yet, when Fauci does his job he is accused of playing politics and the claim gets straight reporting in the mainstream press, because Both Sides.
Certainly, there are COVID-politics; however, we must be careful in how we frame this. This is how I see it:
Politics of politicization: Pretty much what I just went over. There is science. There are scientists engaging in and talking about science. Then there are right-wing politicians, political operatives, and political press objecting to the science and trying to make the fight political. They frame science as political because the know how to fight political fights and are totally out-to-lunch when it comes to science. This is not new for Republicans. They politicize climate science. They politicize any science that suggests regulation. When science undermines ideology, instead of arguing their point, they politicize science by calling science ideology and then they argue ideology and politics.
Congressional politics: The big fight in Congress is philosophical. Democrats essentially believe that government is there to help all Americans, especially in a crisis. Republicans believe that government has either a limited role or none at all in helping people. Republicans are more inclined to assist private institutions such as Wall Street and corporate America. Democrats are inclined to help regular citizens and small businesses, as well as private institutions. Because Congress is a political body and government aid requires action, the philosophic debate is also political, as are all legislative fights. For a politician or the political press to cry “Politics!” when a political institution gets political is a disingenuous attempt to play the public.
Electoral politics: We are in a presidential election year. That means that no matter how insignificant or important an issue is, it will become political. Biden eating a salad while Trump attacks a bucket of chicken becomes a political battle between healthy eating and “I’ll eat what I please” or vegetarianism and meat-eating. Biden has a dog, Trump hates them: In an election, this becomes political. Biden thinks that the federal government needs to lead the COVID fight vs. Trump refusing federal responsibility: In a campaign, the philosophical become political. Of course, the politics and policy debates are important, still, it is vital to differentiate politics/political issues from politics being used in electoral tactics and not to confuse politics/electoral politics and science.
Criticism of performance: Here is where things get confusing. I am a political person. I often speak in a political language. I am also a critic. I look at something and I criticize it based on its merits. I try to be transparent about my politics and my criticism, and what is behind each. Almost all of my criticism of Trump’s COVID response is wholly critical. I ask, “What did Trump do in response to X?” and then evaluate Trump’s response, as well as his justification for his actions (or inaction). For example:
At least as far back as January, Trump ignored coronavirus warnings. He then denied and downplayed the virus. These are historical facts, easily verified as to be true. My criticism of the denying and dithering is not political. It is a job performance evaluation. Trump fucked up.
Jared Kushner stating that COVID has been defeated and we can safely get back to work is untrue and insulting. My criticism of Kushner’s statement is not political. COVID has not been defeated and anyone who is paying attention to the news knows this to be true. To tell us otherwise is to assume that we are stupid and that assumption is insulting. Criticism, not politics.
Now, now, now, I am neither naïve or deceitful: It is very easy for all the above to slip into politics. We are a political society in a very highly charged political atmosphere. We also are a sporting society. We watch a lot of sports and talk about it all the time. We are an entertainment society. We consume tons of television, movies, and music. Entertainment culture profoundly influences our lives. We can talk about sports without engaging in sports or criticize a movie without contributing to entertainment. We know the distinction between doing sports and criticism, and creating entertainment and criticism. We must make the same distinction between playing politics and criticism.
That said, there is a big political battle going on. It is what I have been writing about: The battle over politicizing everything COVID, especially mitigation, public health warnings, and science. This is an important battle that we must engage in. Why? Let’s go back to the numbers:
The Washington Post article on the Post/Maryland poll cites April numbers on support/opposition for COVID mitigation: Sixty-six percent supported current mitigation strategies; Sixteen percent said “We are not doing enough”; Seventeen percent said we were doing too much. Add things up: In April, 82% supported mitigation strategies at last week’s level or more severe, and 17% fell in with the “Open America Again” crowd. Today, it is 78% support/more and 22% Open.
Support for mitigation has slipped due to fatigue, but also the huge propaganda campaign by Trump, his re-election campaign, Fox, and the far-right. (That propaganda campaign is also responsible for infecting Fox News viewers.) If Trump STFU, opposition to mitigation would drop. And, if everyday people who support mitigation got loud, support for mitigation would rise. So, what do we do?
To start, Get Loud! But avoid direct confrontation over mitigation. Do not debate the effectiveness of wearing masks, social distancing, or stay-at-home orders. Do not debate the science. Those people trying to pull you into that debate do not want to debate science. They want to politicize science and spar over politics. Don’t let them. Don’t engage. Don’t be baiting into engaging. If someone among the fringe tells you that you are a pussy for wearing mask, let it go, just as if they were telling you that you are a fool for not believing Hillary Clinton is a lizard mama.
Take ownership of your actions. Do not let your non-political actions be framed as politics. Ask yourself, “Why do I wear a mask?” I wear a mask to protect myself and others. I wear a mask because I have family members who have underlying conditions. I wear a mask so that my 99-year-old father-in-law will see his 100th birthday at the end of the month. I wear a mask because I want to do my part in battling this virus and it is the very least that I can do. I refuse to let others tell me why I am doing what I do. They don’t know me.
When someone tries to politicize mitigation allow them this: They might be motivated by more than politics or ideology. They could be motivated by fear or some past experience that led them not to trust doctors or whatever. Let them have that space for themselves. Giving them this space also allows them the space to change. That said, don’t confuse refusing to question their motives with giving up the fight against politicization or for pulling a punch.
When someone in the media tries to frame science and mitigation as Both-Sides and engages in false equivalency, call them out on it. When you read a story or opinion piece that suggests that mask wearing is a political act, don’t grumble on social media. Write the author of the piece and ask where they got the data to back up their contention. Ask them if they based their reporting on polling or personal antidotes. Give them your own antidote. Tell them why you wear a mask. Tell them why you practice social distancing and abide by stay at home orders. Ask them to do a story on people who are following Fauci’s advice because he is a scientist who knows what he is doing. Be polite but firm. Do not let them use you to create a divide where there isn’t one.
Understand that the fight against politicization is a political fight. Read that again and again. Knowing that this is a political fight will help avoid the blurring of science and politics. Being clear about the nature of the fight helps guard against being baited into arguing science. Understanding that this is a political fight is preparation for the blowback that follows speaking up.
Speak up and someone will be offended. Fine, but that is their trip, no one else’s. Speak up and bullies and trolls will threaten. In my experience, the threats are bluffs aimed to get you to stop. I’ve always ignored them, blocked the asshole, and kept running my mouth. Sure, it is uncomfortable, but probably less so than having a breathing tube shoved down my throat because I got the virus.
Back to the beginning: 78% of the country thinks current restrictions are enough or that we need more; 86% support social distancing; 80% support mask wearing; 78% support stay-at-home orders. We – the majority of Americans – are not acting on politics, but following medical advice from public health officials and scientists. We trust the scientists know what they are doing. We’ve read that these mitigation strategies – as well as testing and contact tracing – are well established protocols for dealing with viruses and pandemics. Now, stop being shy with that information. Get up, stand up, stand up for your right to live a healthy life.