Political Discourse in the age of COVID-19

Lately it’s been harder and harder to participate in the social media sphere (and in particular Facebook). Because of the pandemic, and everyone having a lot more time on their hands, the amount of political discourse has gone up, while the quality of that discourse has often gone down. Too often I see deeper entrenchment on both sides of the aisle, despite the fact that we’re currently facing a crisis that doesn’t give a shit about sides.

COVID-19 is a science problem, not a political one. Science isn’t about conservative or liberal politics. Science is a thing unto itself, and when we try to shoehorn it into our political belief systems, it will let us down every time. That’s because science operates with a completely different paradigm than we’re used to.

In science you make a hypothesis based on existing data. You then test your hypothesis. You look at the results of that test, and the data, and then you either have proven the hypothesis or you need to restate it and try again. Or, you move on to the next step in the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s about trial and error, and most importantly… failure. Many things that people attempt in the scientific field fail. In fact, some scientists I know would even say that MOST things fail. The very essence of the scientific experience has a failure feedback loop built into it. It’s how it thrives. Many scientific and technological successes have come from building on the failures of what has come before. Without failure, those successes wouldn’t come to pass.

Politics operates in a completely different world. In politics we look to those in power to provide “the answer” to our problems (or we ask them to get out of the way if you’re a Libertarian). Politics does not respect failure, and in fact it punishes it. If a politician presents a message that does not resonate with voters they lose their next election. They fail. We don’t expect them to come back again and say, “Hey look, I found the problem in the data and I’m ready to try again, so let’s redo that election next month please.” They get one shot at it, and then if they fail they have to completely regroup, and may never be back on the scene again. Politics is about winners and losers and failure is not an option.

Then along comes a pandemic. An event in the natural world that can only be solved by science. This new thing has entered the world and to understand it takes rigor, discipline, and yes, failure. To find a cure for a disease you have to spend countless days and months studying and understanding the disease, and then hypothesizing treatments which then get tested over and over again, failing multiple times. It takes time. It takes patience. It requires failure.

Politics can’t handle this. It wants answers, and it wants them now. Policy decisions cannot wait until science has everything figured out and fixed. Politicians are forced to do the best they can, with the data that science has given them. Yet many times, the data changes as more hypothesis are tested, and success and failures chart a path to the truth. This means that when policy decisions end up needing to change, as the science changes, we don’t see “good” scientific failure, we see “bad” political failure. As a society we simply can’t wrap our heads about the idea of “evolving” policy decisions. Everything is either black or white, up or down. If you’re not giving the right answer, then the correct answer must be the opposite of what you’re saying. Because we live in a duopoly of political spectrums, we don’t have the benefit of more nuanced and multi-faceted political sphere. However, even if there were multiple spectrums, the nature of politics means that we’d all still be clamoring for one side or another of the multiple spectrums. It’s how politics and policy works.

This is a good time for everyone, as a citizen, to pause and take a moment and acknowledge where they are on the political spectrum. Then stop, pause, and take a deep breath. Ask yourself a question from a science point of view, “What if my political view on this turns out to be wrong and a failure?” What does that do to you? Can you accept a more science oriented view that allows for grace and understanding? Can you accept that we sometimes need to re-think our approach to policy? Can you accept that when dealing with a foe that only science can defeat, maybe we need to learn to adapt our worldview and allow for a more failure-based, experimental approach to our policy?

I make no secret of the fact that I’m on the liberal end of the spectrum. I’m a believer in universal health care, strong social safety nets, huge investments in public education, more government involvement in regulation and policies, and many other left-of-center ideologies. But I also understand that I live in a world where these ideals are not shared with everyone I come in contact with. I live in community with many different people, and I need to accept that reality and chose how to live in a conflicted world.

I would love to change the world and make this pandemic go away. As someone who grew up in extreme poverty, I know how devastating this time is to those who struggle every day to survive. Poor communities are being ravaged by the pandemic in ways that many of us in the middle class see as just minor inconvenience. I want to say that we need to end all of this lockdown craziness because of how incredibly destructive it is to those in poverty (of whom people of color are disproportionally affected). The liberal in me wants people to be able to survive and thrive, and this lockdown hurts so many people in so many ways.

But, I need to put that aside and let science happen. It’s so incongruous to my worldview to knowingly let people suffer, but I have to trust that science will get us to an eventual answer. It takes time and it takes failure. That failure leads to adjustments that often feel like they’re in opposition to what we thought we knew. It’s frustrating. It’s incredibly frustrating. It requires that I change, and that’s never easy.

My challenge to everyone is to take a deep breath. Comparing our situation to fascism or calling people murderers doesn’t help. We’re in territory we’ve never been in before in our lifetimes (most of us anyway). We need to let science do what it does best, and understand that, because of this, politicians may not always be able to meet our expectations. Things will get better, but it’s going to take time. Science takes time. What we can’t afford, as a society, is to let this continue to deepen the wounds we’re inflicting on one another.

Help those who you can. Give grace to those you disagree with. Be good to one another and tomorrow will maybe look different… maybe even better.

One thought on “Political Discourse in the age of COVID-19

  1. Well said and I would like to believe that more than not would agree with you. But the rabid nastiness that is out there makes you wonder at how many more who are simply silent who do agree with them. The outspoken minority or the silent majority or is it the outspoken minority with a silent majority. We will find out in November. Scary times indeed.

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