Monday, December 6, 2021
HomeOpinionOp-EdsHow Political Tribalism Has Affected Pandemic-Era Political Discourse

How Political Tribalism Has Affected Pandemic-Era Political Discourse

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“Right-wing misinformation” this, “liberal propaganda” that. Voters across America can’t seem to agree on the same set of facts and will blindly advocate for whatever ideas are most prevalent amongst their political party. This is known as political tribalism, where members of a political community devote themselves to group loyalty to the point that it affects their openness to experiencing ideas outside of their own. 

This type of tribalism in modern politics exemplifies the prevailing trend of the celebritization of politicians: voters and the mainstream media will venerate politicians for their public personas and act as if they can do no wrong by shutting down any criticism leveled against them. As such, elected officials are treated like celebrities, subject to the unconditional loyalty of their supporters and are allowed to get away with anything as long as they are likable and ready to stand in front of the news camera.

One example of such celebritization during the modern era would be the shameless tongue-bath that the media gave to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo regarding his pandemic response. During the early days of the lockdowns, news outlets elevated Cuomo as a figure of truth and morality, utilizing him as a contrast to former President Donald Trump’s constant disregarding of the pandemic. Cuomo was even awarded an Emmy for his COVID-19 briefings, an award usually reserved for television stars. The media elevated Cuomo and disregarded his failings even as a probe revealed that Cuomo’s administration sent thousands of infected elderly COVID-19 patients back to their nursing homes, manufactured a cover-up when they died and threatened to destroy the career of a NY Democratic Assemblymember when he criticized Cuomo on said coverup. 

The media finally reversed course in 2021 when an explosive report by the NY Attorney General found that Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women; however, it was already too late by then. Even after he resigned, Cuomo’s most loyal supporters, who dubbed themselves “Cuomosexuals” during New York’s pandemic response and were blinded by the glowing press coverage he received in the previous year, still believed he could do no wrong and defended him in a fashion similar to fanbases defending their favorite celebrity. Because the media created this angelic, celebritized figure out of Cuomo during the pandemic, the deaths of thousands of seniors and the abuse of a dozen women were simply swept under the rug. 

Of course, tribalism on all sides has existed before pandemic-era politics. However, it is especially dangerous at this moment because it has an unprecedented amount of consequences affecting public health, trust in our institutions and freedom of speech. Trump, his acolytes in Congress and right-wing media instilled a sense of distrust in the effectiveness of masks, minimized the effects of the virus and disobeyed public health guidelines. This has given ammunition to Democrats, who have capitalized on the fact that, today, even information can be politicized. They have used these high political stakes to further celebritize Dr. Anthony Fauci in the same vein as Cuomo, placing their unwavering trust in him while ignoring the obvious flaws in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the onset of the lockdowns, Fauci has continually misled the American people, including on the efficacy of mask-wearing and the level of herd immunity required to loosen the lockdowns. Defenders of his can say that he was lying for noble reasons, and I’ll give them that. But Fauci is a doctor who works in politics, not a politician who is also a doctor. We expect politicians to lie. Doctors are supposed to be honest. How would you feel if your doctor lied to you? And how can we trust Fauci when he has lied in a moment when honesty and transparency is most important? 

The most egregious moment in Fauci’s role in the pandemic response; however, it has only recently been uncovered. In an effort to obscure any possible evidence of the “lab leak hypothesis” of COVID-19’s origins, Fauci, as an official in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), testified in front of Congress in July 2021 that his institute never funded “gain-of-function” research (genetic modification in order to enhance certain traits) at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We now know from a Congressional letter that Fauci had lied in his testimony and that the NIH had indeed been funding dangerous experimentation on a bat coronavirus, which resulted in it becoming more infectious to humans. 

Not only had Fauci lied under oath, but his prominence and level of celebritization among the American public serves to insulate himself and his agency from much of the scrutiny that they deserve. For the better part of a year, the likes of CNN and MSNBC had denounced the lab leak hypothesis as a far-right conspiracy theory and considered it unmentionable if you took the pandemic seriously. Facebook was even banning posts that suggested a man-made origin to COVID-19, even though the lab-leak theory does not suggest anywhere that the virus was a deliberate creation intended for nefarious purposes. So far, the NIH has denied that gain-of-function research could have resulted in the virus leaking out of the Wuhan lab. However if further investigations reveal otherwise, the mainstream media will have played a huge role in propagating misinformation and suppressing the truth, the exact same tactics that they have spent the last 18 months decrying as “threats to democracy.”

This is why the celebritization of politicians has been so dangerous during the pandemic. While our public agencies have failed us and politicians on all sides have weaponized information for their own gain, who do we turn to? The press, who should be serving as a watchdog against our government, have instead turned into the propaganda arm for their respective political leanings all while calling for censorship of information that goes against their narrative, even when revealed as factual. In this case, the disavowal of free speech in media and online discourse has not only served to discredit valuable information, but it also promotes an undemocratic culture where public officials and agencies are shielded from scrutiny and negative coverage. Politicians are public servants. They should serve us; instead, the media is trying to get us to serve them.

Johnny Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the 2021 fall quarter. He can be reached at johnnln1@uci.edu