It is no exaggeration to say that the impact of the coronavirus has rattled the United States. As of April 22, 2020, there have been over 800,00 cases of coronavirus in America and over 40,000 deaths and these numbers are still growing. Americans have lost their jobs, lost their loved ones, and halted their education. A common reaction to our new reality of quarantine and social distancing has been one of sadness and frustration due to the unpredictable nature of the deadly disease. Our nation’s top government officials and brightest doctors have been doing their best with advice to keep us safe; however, in the midst of this pandemic, highly charged political protests have sprung up across multiple states to combat government orders put in place to protect citizens.
This post is in response to Charlie Warzel’s opinion piece in the New York Times about how the protests surrounding the coronavirus have lost sight of the liberties that these protestors believe they are defending. Warzel’s piece attacks Alex Jones fans and Trump-loving conservatives alike as he points out their intense party polarization and lack of regard for scientific evidence or safety regarding the coronavirus. I agree wholeheartedly with Warzel’s opinions about the ignorance and danger of the protests to American society and democracy. Despite this, I think Warzel fails to recognize how the tone and context of his post contribute to the resentment of these protesting groups towards those unlike them.
Although the article does not come out right and say it, the connections it makes between the protests and dangerous demagogues is clear and well supported. In Merceica’s article about dangerous demagoguery, she writes about how people like Alex Jones and Donald Trump use weaponized communication to create powerful political rhetoric that is incredibly persuasive to vulnerable populations. Weaponized communication is “an aggressive means to gain compliance and avoid accountability.” Alex Jones continues to prove himself as someone who uses this method to gain power as Warzel describes how Jones has added to the paranoia and unrest about the unknowns of the coronavirus through his conspiracy blog Infowars. Dangerous demagogues threaten the integrity of democracy because of how they manipulate those not in power to believe them and follow their lead which can be anti-pluralist or anti-establishment. A democracy has no room to be resilient when it has leaders that abuse power through demagoguery and threaten Levitsky and Ziblatt’s concept of norms and institutional forbearance. Institutional forbearance is the ability of a democracy to maintain power over time without it becoming too big or too small. This is exactly the type of thing that dangerous demagoguery works to destabilize which can derail democracy because the norm is no longer being upheld.
Alex Jones is writing his blog in defense of reopening the American economy and protecting his liberties and Charlie Warzel is writing his opinion piece in support of what he believes is best for public health and safety. However, both show signs of demonstrating extreme rhetoric. In Gutman’s article about the dangers of extreme rhetoric, the distinction is made between extreme and extremist rhetoric. Extreme rhetoric is impassioned but still sound in truth and open to opinion; whereas, extremist rhetoric has a “single-minded certainty” and reduces complex problems to simple answers. This extremist attitude is something that I picked up in Warzel’s description of the harm of the protest throughout his piece. Warzel fails to mention how these people may be struggling with unemployment or with their mental health after the loss of the ability to do the things that they love. Warzel shrinks these people with feelings and families down to mindless supporters of Jones or Trump who seem to not care for others’ wellbeing. This type of rhetoric is extremist and threatens democracy by belittling the ability to protest, a fundamental and constitutional right of this country.
A good source of insight in Warzel’s piece is his view on group identity. Warzel notes how conservative fans of both Trump and Jones came together to incite an impactful protest that made their message against Democrats and social distancing loud and clear. Although the entire world is experiencing the changes caused by the coronavirus and wanting to come out of this pandemic alive, the strength of social identity and how it can affect democracy is really what these protests have shown. social identity exaggerates similarities within the group and the differences outside of the group. This works to make a group feel powerful against what it views as its enemies. That is exactly how the protesters were able to come together with their American flags and MAGA hats and feel unafraid to come in close contact with one another or block emergency vehicles in spite of the ongoing pandemic. In cases like the one of the protest, group identity can become dangerous. It can be very strongly anti-establishment and work against democracy that wants to help citizens and overall erode the whole system.
Both Warzel’s opinion piece and the events of the coronavirus protests that he is describing within his article demonstrate an overarching issue in American democracy which is party polarization. Dangerous demagogues and extremist rhetoric come together with group identity from both parties and continue to drive a wedge between the two sides of American politics. When political parties fail to work together and understand each other they break the other norm of Levitsky and Ziblatt which is mutual tolerance. Mutual tolerance is the ability to work together and understand differences in opinion in a political system. The way that the effects of the coronavirus protest can fight the norms of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance show how dangerous they are to democratic erosion and that is why I agree with Warzel that they were unjust dangers to democracy and public health and should not have happened.
Warzel, Charlie. “Protesting for the Freedom to Catch the Coronavirus.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/19/opinion/coronavirus-trump-protests.html. Accessed 22 Apr, 2020
Photo by Sasan Rashtipour, Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero license.