A Lesson From the Pandemic on How Our Culture Infects Politics

These are some of the mistakes that keep us from addressing the major challenges we face today.

Last spring, when even Donald Trump had to admit that we were in the midst of a pandemic, there were those who suggested that warmer weather would slow the spread of the coronavirus. As we approach the fall season, it is clear that didn’t happen, with around 40,000 new COVID-19 cases being reported every day.

But if you watched the Republican Convention, you might think that the whole scare is over, with speakers referring to the pandemic in the past tense. The worst offender was White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow.

Just a few weeks later, USA Today is reporting that, as colleges and universities reopen, communities heavy with college students represent 19 of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S. We could see similar results as K-12 schools reopen. In other words, this pandemic is hardly over.

Trump and some governors have hampered an effective approach to the coronavirus. While it is important to hold them accountable, Ed Yong has documented some of the other reasons why the United States is “trapped in a pandemic spiral.” He points out that, especially with so much misinformation being spread, Americans relied on their intuition.

Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

Where Yong talks about “intuition,” it might be more helpful to think about how our culture has an impact on how we approach the challenges we face as a country. As such, it isn’t limited to our response to a pandemic, but also helps explain the barriers we face in tackling everything from climate change to systemic racism.

Yong identifies nine “errors of intuition” that have trapped this country in a pandemic spiral. While all of them are significant, there are four that stand out as the kind of errors we’ve made over and over again on other issues.

1. False Dichotomies

The entire framing of COVID-19 has been that most people experience mild symptoms but, for a relatively small subset of those infected, it becomes fatal. That dichotomy has precluded any discussion about the so-called “long haulers” who have suffered debilitating symptoms for months that could plague them for the rest of their lives. That led to another dichotomy when we were all asked to choose between saving lives and saving the economy. The fact is that the economy can’t be saved until we get control of the virus. It’s not an either/or, but a both/and. A close cousin to that dichotomy is the lie we often hear about having to choose between saving the planet and saving jobs.

2. Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes

Finger-pointing has been ubiquitous during this pandemic, but here’s how Yong responded:

[T]attered social safety nets are less visible than crowded bars. Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter.

If you add our neglected public health system to the “tattered social safety net,” you begin to see the scope of the problem. Yong refers to the possibility that our puritanical roots can help explain why Americans “prize shame over support.” That is exactly how so-called “cancel culture” can often get in the way of addressing issues like systemic racism.

3. A Reactive Rut

Given that COVID-19 symptoms show up weeks after an infection and that the concept of exponential growth is counterintuitive, we got stuck in a reactive rut.

Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones. This lag separates actions from their consequences by enough time to break our intuition for cause and effect. Policy makers end up acting only when it’s too late. Predictable surges get falsely cast as unexpected surprises.

American politics is often reactive to the moment rather than taking a long-term view. As such, we’ll react with horror every time fires rage across California without taking the necessary steps to address climate change.

5. Habituation of Horror

This is the most dangerous error of intuition that the U.S. has been practicing for decades.

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

While it is always appropriate to hold leaders accountable, these are just some of the ways that we have allowed our culture to infect our politics in a way that not only got us in a pandemic spiral, but prevents us from addressing the major issues we face.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.