More than 70% of Americans support scientifically-based COVID mitigation/control measures such as stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders, physical distancing, wearing masks, and routine hand-washing. This is not some regional thing: 76% of North Carolinians, 82% of Oregonians, 80% of Mainers, and 95% of Los Angelinos support COVID measures. Even in Michigan, besieged by far right protesters, support is at 57%. And, despite or in reaction to the right-wing astroturf protests, support for COVID measures has gone up ten percentage points over the last two weeks.
All of the measures states and localities are using to combat the virus – the stay-at-home orders, physical/social distancing, wearing masks, hand-washing – are supported by nearly the entire medical community and are seen as sound science, if not basic common sense. Dissent within the medical world is limited to a small fringe of widely discredited doctors, often pushing their own miracle cures and get rich quick schemes. The quacks, who include many TV doctors, have routinely been debunked and there is no controversy in countering the charlatans’ claims.
Despite the “medical” fringe and very loud noises from President Trump, some Republicans, political operatives, and greedy tech pests like Elon Musk, the majority of Americans ignore the right-wing politicization of COVID prevention, choosing to listen to health experts and scientists. While the press has reported on disputes between politicians and scientists/medical researchers, it has done a pretty good job of not blurring the scientific and the political. That could be changing.
Over the last two days, Politico ran two pieces that attempt to reframe the debate on COVID mitigation/control measures in purely political terms. Today, Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman published one doozy of a piece on the “latest partisan standoff” over COVID prevention measures. In classic “both-sidesism”, they write:
Views on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic have become increasingly polarized, yet another political issue that for many culture war combatants is filtered through an ideological lens. The left has been almost uniformly — and loudly — in favor of sacrificing many personal liberties in exchange for containing the virus’ spread. The right has been divided, but the vocal activist wing of conservatism that has enormous influence on social media and Fox News, has been far more willing to attack the various infringements on where people can go and what they have to wear.
To start, following a public health official’s advice to wear a mask when interacting with others is no more “ideological” than refusing to eat stuff off the sidewalk. There is nothing “partisan” about advising a hungry moron to “Leave it there, don’t you dare.” Just because that idiot says, “Looks good” and eats the sidewalk stuff, green fuzz and all, saying he did so on “constitutional grounds,” doesn’t make his idiocy political.
Perhaps following doctors’ orders can be seen as “sacrificing personal liberties in exchange for containing the virus’s spread” – but to equate taking medical advice seriously to telling scientists to fuck off is a stretch – that is, unless one truly believes that the medical community has the whole corona thing wrong or is engaged in some hoax designed to bring of 5G or allow Bill Gates to microchip us through a “fake vaccine.” I mean, I guess, if the world is flat and the moon landing was faked and Hillary Clinton is a lizard mama than washing your hands when you get home from the store is overkill, but…
It gets worse:
For progressives, masks have become a sign that you take the pandemic seriously and are willing to make a personal sacrifice to save lives. Prominent people who don’t wear them are shamed and dragged on Twitter by lefty accounts. On the right, where the mask is often seen as the symbol of a purported overreaction to the coronavirus, mask promotion is a target of ridicule, a sign that in a deeply polarized America almost anything can be politicized and turned into a token of tribal affiliation.
The cleavage was made clear this week when Mike Pence toured the Mayo Clinic without wearing a mask. Pictures from the event showed the maskless vice president surrounded by doctors and patients with face coverings. The story dominated cable news. Liberal hosts shamed Pence for setting a bad example or behaving recklessly. Conservatives attacked the left’s mask obsession as another example of the creeping nanny state.
The example here is Pence’s refusal to wear a mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic even though Mayo specifically told the Vice President’s staff that masks were to be worn and Pence’s staff passed on that info to the press pool a memo (and is now trying to punish a reporter for reporting on the memo). In Politico’s reading, Mayo’ mask-on order is simply “a sign that you take the pandemic seriously and are willing to make a personal sacrifice to save live [my emphasis] .” Thus, the masked doctors and medical personnel pictured with the VP are ”virtue signaling.” Pissed off that the Vice President of the United States said FU to a medical directive, a signal that it is okat to follow his example? Well, shame on you! You are “deeply polarized” and acting as “a token of tribal affiliation.”
And then there is this honker,
In Washington, mask-wearing has become deeply political and inconsistent. The White House is divided along some familiar lines. In early April, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first issued its recommendation that Americans wear “cloth face coverings” — because surgical masks are still in short supply — Trump immediately blurted out that he wasn’t interested.
While it is true that Donald Trump and his cohort refuse to wear masks for political and personal reasons, assuming that those who do wear masks are being “deeply political” is grasping. And presenting the CDC’s mask recommendation – something based on science – as the similar to Trump’s refusal to wear a mask because he thinks it hurt him politically and will minimize his masculinity puts Trump on the same level as doctors.
The CDC says “Wear a mask;” Trump says ““You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it. It may be good. It is only a recommendation, voluntary.” The CDC says “Don’t inject or ingest disinfectants;” Trump says “”And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that, so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me.“ Same thing, right?
Lizza and Lippman’s piece didn’t come out of nowhere. On Thursday, Politico ran a column by John F. Harris framing shelter-in-place orders and other mitigation measures as a philosophical exercise. Whether we follow doctors’ orders is not a comment on how careful or reckless we are with our health and that of others, but a struggle between high concepts of freedom and the common good. And, yeah, play word games long enough and we will get talking about how much blood is needed to water the tree of liberty, but this?
Individual liberties are in tension with public order. Respect for tradition is in tension with tolerance for diversity. And, yes, averting some number of tragic deaths from coronavirus is in tension with the need for a much larger number of people to resume life—sometime after it is no longer reckless to do so but sometime before it is perfectly safe.
An honest brand of politics, which we urgently need, admits the tension and tries in good faith—with reference to evolving evidence and with acknowledgment of uncertainty—to resolve it in the public interest. A dishonest brand of politics, of which we are wearily familiar, assumes a pose of superiority and certitude, and cares about evidence mostly as it can be deployed as a weapon or shield in a partisan argument that began long before the issue at hand and will continue long after.
Really, an “honest brand” of political analysis would jettison this high-minded, “I am above the fray, a neutral arbiter of objective journalism, a nonpartisan umpire simply calling balls and strikes” bullshit and drop the fronting. Seems to me that fighting a virus means trusting the “superiority” of science over the ignorance of some cosplay asshole from Michigan marching on the state house with his guns. Being “certain” that Anthony Fauci is more scientifically trustworthy than Donald Trump and Jared Kushner combined is not “deploying a weapon or shield in a partisan argument.”
The position that Lizza, Lippman, and Harris are pushing is dangerous and irresponsible. There is no equivalence between what is coming out of the medical, public health and science communities and that which Trump and his reelection campaign is promoting. Hell, to compare the two camps’ ideas is an apples and dog shit exercise. Scientists and health officials are advising people based on science. The public officials who follow their guidance are making decision based on science. Trump and his people are making political decisions, based electoral tactics, polling and Trump’s personal whim, not science.
This distinction should be obviously clear, but in case it isn’t, look to the states and the rhetoric from governors who are following medical and scientific guidelines. Democratic or Republican, those officials who have enacted shelter-in-place orders, restricted business, and pushed physical distancing always come back to science and medicine. They consult data. They show us charts on how mitigation “flattens the curve.” They demand medical equipment that doctor say that they need to combat the disease – not exotic stuff, but things like masks, rubber gloves, and ventilators. All these governors keep coming back to testing, testing, testing.
Trump, his Fox buddies, the anti-vaxxers, militia, and jackass governors like Ron DeSantos and Brian Kemp reference their gut feeling, intuition, faith, and whatever it is they are pointing at when they put their finger to their head. They ask us to trust miracle cures, drugs that have never been tested on COVID-19 and light shined into the body. They tell us “What do you have to lose?” and when someone loses something they say “Not my responsibility. No big deal. Go about your day as usual.” You don’t have to be Gertrude Stein to know that there is no there there.
The there there is this: There is the COVID-19 pandemic and there is politics, and those two things should exist in their own world, one of science and the other of politics. Insisting on such a division is not partisan or trying to score political points, just as trying to politicize everything corona is not science.
Certainly, we understand this when it comes to something like firefighting. House on fire, send the fire department, add water if appropriate, and don’t touch the flames are decisions based on science and expertise. Funding of the fire department, how much to tax, and who to tax are decisions often based on politics. We don’t have political or philosophical debates over the practical means we use to fight fires. We do debate politics and philosophy when we talk funding.
The only reason the discussion of water putting out fire would be political is if someone deliberately tried to politicize the issue. The only reason one would politicize water on fire would be because their contention that kerosene can put out a fire is bunk and their attempt to douse fire with kerosene literally blew up in their face. The politicization is the kerosene camp’s cover for failure; framing the politicization as a “both sides” thing is lazy, dishonest, and dangerous. Fact is, water puts out fire. Fact is, trying to drown a fire with kerosene is idiocy. Fact is, anyone trying to frame fire vs. kerosene as a legit political debate is enabling the idiots. No high-minded philosophizing or “journalistic” false equivalency is going to change that.