Political Demonization in the Time of Coronavirus

The pandemic has not changed how we disagree with each other

Photo by Alyson McClaran / Reuters

The crisis caused by the novel coronavirus has not changed the tone of American political rhetoric. Although many people have drawn an analogy between the virus and war, we are not seeing a spirit of pulling together and letting bygones be bygones.

Several years ago, I noticed that our political rhetoric was being conducted in what I call Demonization Mode instead of Persuasion Mode. In Persuasion Mode (think of a high school debate contest), we show personal respect toward the other side, we listen to their best arguments, and we try to present facts and analysis that support our position. In Demonization Mode, we divide the world into people trying to do good and people trying to do evil, and we characterize those with whom we disagree as trying to do evil.

In my 2017 book The Three Languages of PoliticsI presented a model of how Demonization Mode works in contemporary American politics. I describe the rhetorical patterns of conservatives, progressives, and libertarians.

Conservatives demonize along a civilization-barbarism axis, which emphasizes the importance of cultural norms and traditions and the fragility of civilization that rests on those values. Conservatives characterize those who disagree with them as being on the side of barbarism. They accuse their opponents of being traitorous, amoral, and nihilist.

Progressives demonize along an oppressor-oppressed axis, which emphasizes the way that disadvantaged groups suffer from discrimination and inequity. Progressives characterize those who disagree with them as being on the side of oppression. They accuse their opponents of being racist, exploitative, and heartless.

Libertarians demonize along a liberty-coercion axis, which emphasizes that state policies ultimately are backed by the threat to use force to obtain compliance. Libertarians characterize those who disagree with them of favoring coercion. They accuse their opponents of being statist, paternalistic, and power-driven.

An easy way to see how these worldviews clash is to look at the controversy concerning the role of national borders, travel restrictions, and trade restrictions—what pundits are calling “de-globalization.”

Conservatives, including President Trump, view de-globalization in positive terms since they see it as furthering their goal of strengthening economic and national sovereignty. Progressives worry that de-globalization policies—such as immigration restrictions—are racist, and libertarians also see such policies in a negative light since they interfere with free trade and individual liberty.

Another example is the controversy that has emerged over government orders to shut down many businesses and to discourage people from leaving their homes to mingle with one another. Collectively, these policies are referred to as “lockdowns.”

Libertarians are vehemently opposed to lockdowns because they resent the expansion of state power. They despise the loss of economic activity in the private sector. Progressives were at first divided over lockdowns, with California an early adopter of the policy while New York was proud to remain open. But progressives now seem firmly supportive of lockdowns, while conservatives appear to favor a faster easing of restrictions.

Controversy over lockdowns has drawn people on both sides to demonize one another. Opponents of lockdowns assert that the virus is “just the flu,” implying that lockdown supporters are overreacting. Supporters of lockdowns assert that “all it takes to beat the virus is to have the fortitude to stay home and play video games,” implying that lockdown opponents are wimps.

In fact, any comparison of the number of deaths from COVID-19 during a lockdown to the ordinary flu seasons shows that “just the flu” is nonsense. But the notion that we can “beat the virus” by staying home is not fact-based, either. The most that lockdowns can accomplish is to “flatten the curve,” which means that while fewer of us will get the virus sooner, more of us will get it later. We cannot beat the virus until we achieve immunity, either naturally as it infects the entire population or artificially with a vaccine.

Getting through the coronavirus crisis is going to be difficult regardless. But political rhetoric in Demonization Mode is not going to help. Somehow, we need to recover the ability to speak in Persuasion Mode.

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