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Covid-19 Is Unprecedented but Our Leaders' Response Is Not


We may talk about the Covid-19 virus as an unprecedented global event, but the rhetoric displayed by political leaders, along with their followers, is all too familiar. Remove references to the virus from transcripts, columns or tweets and replace it with a run-of-the-mill issue, and you would see they’re not treating this pandemic too differently than most disputes in the pre-coronavirus world.

Our leaders are showing that they’re incapable of rising above these tired tactics, even as we face a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Unfortunately, the spectrum-wide partisanship that lacks consistency and humility — even as it contradicts itself — is hurting our ability reach a solution. But as long as supporters and media consumers are willing to give their preferred side a pass and not hold them accountable in order to take shots against their opponents, then there’s no incentive to change.

#Resistance and #MAGA types across Washington can pound their chests all that they want to liberate this or close that. But it doesn’t take too deep a dive into the archives or social media feeds to see that many of whom are decisively declaring the correct approach today were likely in a very different place barely a month ago. When President Donald Trump can clip together a supercut showing the media and Democrats underplaying the threat, and then vice versa is done to Trump and his allies, it should give us pause for reflection.

The truth is that either everyone mistakenly carried on with business as usual until mid-March, or no one could have properly — and understandably — anticipated the Covid-19 fallout. Trump held his usual campaign rallies and Democrats went ahead canvassing for votes by conducting multiple debates, caucuses and primaries throughout February. Nobody thought twice about canceling or postponing such events until weeks later (Iowa caucus organizers probably would have loved a delay). If the threat were truly obvious, then both the president and his critics were equally unaware, but neither can admit that reasonable fact.

Because we prefer to think of ineptitude and unpreparedness as characteristic of our opponents and not ourselves, sharing blame means ceding an inch. Devotees instead charge ahead, deny their shortcomings, abandon previous stances and ignore their own hypocrisy. That mentality is in full force: A GOP that long opposed overreaching executive power now calls on Trump to override governors, while Democrats are suddenly champions of the once-icky concept of states’ rights. Many on Twitter fret over reopened Florida beaches, but disregard the still-running New York City subway. When Trump announced a travel ban on China, Biden called it an example “of hysteria, xenophobia and fear-mongering,” a position echoed by other Democrats; this weekend, Biden’s “devastating” new ad attacks the ban as not tough enough and Trump from cozying up to China. And, on Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Vice President Mike Pence why Trump was encouraging protests against his very own administration’s guidelines. If you’re on both sides of an issue, then you can construe any dissent as patriotic.

With the dueling camps having their undyingly loyal supporters and media apparatuses at the ready, Covid-19 is just the latest arena to deploy the typical tribalistic tactics. There’s no chance to reach a clear-eyed, fair-minded solution in addressing the complex balance of health and economic concerns when a leg up on the opponent is the ultimate focus, regardless of previously conflicting positions and principles.

But those most hurt by this precedent aren’t the random adversaries dunked on in the press briefing or on Twitter; it’s the Covid-19 patient, the first responder and the laid-off employee. This challenge of a pandemic may be unprecedented, but our political culture continues to adhere to a precedent for how we respond.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.



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