By Arthur O’Sullivan
This past Easter, I had the good fortune of being able to come home and celebrate the holiday with my politically divided family. The men in the family tend to be varying shades of conservative; the women tend to be varying shades of liberal. We get along well despite this, and we had a mostly peaceful Holy Week, with the exception of one day, which saw a rather explosive argument about COVID-19 vaccine passports and their statewide/national implementation. Though I, being a conservative, hated the concept, the rest of my family were either willing to tolerate it or even support it, so long as it meant being able to go back to “normal”. In the course of the quarrel, my more liberal family members found themselves surprised by how supposedly “right-wing” I had become, and I likewise found myself surprised at how seemingly acquiescent they had become to what I called “creeping authoritarianism.” We traded these harsh words, though they hurt significantly more than they helped our rhetoric. We each left the fight shaken by the deep emotions we stirred, with our beliefs ultimately unchanged. After taking some time to cool off, realize that the day was beautiful, we each apologized to each other and decided to respect each other’s positions, and proceeded to have an otherwise pleasant Holy Week.
Now, why am I telling you this, dear reader? I’m not just treating you like a stand-in for a Freudian psychoanalyst; I’m telling you this because I believe this story exposes a deep fault-line in American society that developed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe that the root of my family’s disagreement, and likely much of America’s disagreement, boils down to how each of us answer following question:
Is it better for the government to have gone too far in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as opposed to not having gone far enough?
In asking that question, many things suddenly click into place. One can now see the arguments for both sides much clearer: the left, as of now, seems to prefer that the government should go too far in extending its power, so long as it saves vulnerable lives from a dangerous disease. The right, likewise, seems to prefer that the government be limited, so long as it keeps America from embracing the potential tyranny that results from crises like these. These are broad generalizations, and there are many on the left and the right who are less eloquent in expressing their ideas. My family members and I were exemplars of that lack of eloquence in our own bitter argument. However, this does not negate the fact that there are solid arguments from both views, and that a productive discourse would see both sides engage each other with charity. When I say “charity,” I do not just mean giving alms to the poor. I mean the virtue of charity, where one assumes the good faith of the other in any interaction, especially a political dialogue. For the left to be charitable in this context, this means not believing that the right is endorsing “killing grandma” when opposing lockdowns. For the right, this means not believing that the left wants to see America adopt an authoritarian regime. It is obvious that charity is foundational to any functional system that involves interaction between people that disagree.
Charity, however, is increasingly hard to come by these days. It has become a truism among the remaining political moderates to bemoan the divided state of American discourse, especially on Twitter. As I write, #DeathSantis is trending due to a 60 Minutes hit piece that portrayed Florida’s governor in a very negative light. It’s clear that the left has no interest in dealing with their opponents charitably, rather hoping to feel virtuous by portraying anti-lockdown Republicans as if they are all in a “death cult”, as is apparent in left-wing media (i.e. the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, etc.). Though I am a conservative that happens to like Governor DeSantis, I do not want to see people die from COVID. An ounce of charity would make that seem obvious. I also do not dismiss the root of the support for lockdowns and vaccine passports. I believe that the desire to preserve vulnerable life is objectively noble, and I do not doubt that many on the left genuinely think that these things save lives. My concern is that this position has been twisted by left-wing cultural institutions into a pervasive belief that the right somehow has no qualms about discarding life in the name of an ill-defined concept of “liberty”. After all, how can one be free when dead? This warped perspective is only generated in absence of charity for the opposite side.
A similar lack of charity exists on the right, though it operates in a different manner. While the left sources its vituperative hatred for the right from the dominant cultural, political, and scientific institutions, the right derives its hatred for the left from a skepticism towards these same establishments.
To be fair to the right, left-wing ideology undeniably dominates these institutions, with students more likely to encounter leftist values in university, to there being no mainstream media aimed at objective reporting. Not to mention the absurd self-contradictions coming from the scientific establishment about COVID-19 and its spread. Take the bizarre “scientific” apologia for the BLM protests/riots, for instance, where the ScienceTM assured their liberal readers that the riots did not cause the summer spike in cases, but that anti-lockdown or pro-Trump rallies were simultaneously super-spreaders. Alternatively, take Dr. Fauci’s flip-flopping on double masks, oscillating between saying that wearing two masks was “just common sense” to there being “no data to support double-masking,” and then proceeding to say that mixed messaging from the Trump administration caused unnecessary deaths without a hint of irony in his voice.
Despite fairly legitimate grievances against the establishment, much of the right has lost credibility by swinging too far in the opposite direction. Skepticism towards the dominant cultural beliefs about the pandemic can quickly go from reasonable dissent to unreasonable hatred. Many on the right, likely radicalized in their isolation, shift the narrative from moderate ideas like “lockdowns are ineffective and destructive” to extreme ideas like “lockdowns and their supporters are categorically evil and means for Fauci, Biden, and (((them))) to gain power.” The left-wing establishment can then portray those who propound the former idea as actually dog-whistling for the latter, which furthers the gulf between moderates on the left and right who might otherwise be able to have a reasonable argument about the pandemic response.
This widened gulf manifested itself in my fight with my family: I, a conservative who was concerned about the potential authoritarianism a “vaccine passport” would invite, sounded to the left-wing members of my family like the “anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers” they see on social media. Likewise, my family members sounded to me like people in totalitarian states who would tolerate authoritarianism for the sake of convenience and a feeling of security, as that was the image I had unconsciously formed in my head of people who supported vaccine passports. Fortunately, because we were living under the same roof, with the same blood flowing in our veins, we were able to gain sympathy and respect for each other and our views, despite the depth of our disagreements, and reconcile quickly and easily.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the country, which often lacks the deep familial bonds between red and blue. I see no clear solution, as the usual way to solve political division is through direct charitable interaction with those of the other side. Sadly, the relegation of social interaction to the virtual world in this pandemic has largely closed off that route. With the nature of vaccination itself becoming political as the radical left pushes for essentially mandatory vaccines, and the radical right refuses to even get vaccinated, I’m beginning to fear that hope is lost.
I fear that the left-wing establishment will continue to “combat domestic extremism,” that is, suppress the right and the “inconvenient left” (i.e. anarchists, communists etc.), through institutions such as education, corporate media, federal legislation, and executive orders. I fear that the right will radicalize in reaction, only furthering the vicious cycle of American division while our geopolitical enemies in China, Iran, and Russia muster. Whether this will continue into a civil war or a collapse, I am less sure. America has faced existential crises before and has always managed to rebound as more resilient. I hope that, despite my gloomy outlook, my eighteen-year-old self will be proven wrong and look like an idiot. However, in the short term at least, I do not believe that we will come out of this pandemic stronger.