The Herman Cain Award Subreddit and What It Says about America’s Political Crisis

Deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. recently passed 800,000 with no signs of abating. The blame game is also not abating. Are corrupt elites exacerbating and exploiting a crisis for their own interests? Are “irrational” elements at lower levels exhibiting mass resentments at being bossed around? Why does everything seem polarized in America, even “common sense” steps to save lives during a raging pandemic? M. Davout uses the lens of the “Herman Cain Award” to take a closer look at America’s Covid dilemma. He reaches a conclusion that will challenge many. W.J. Astore

Learning from the Herman Cain Award

M. Davout

As America undergoes a series of overlapping domestic political crises—notably among them, determined attacks on democratic election processes, fierce resistance to public health responses during a deadly pandemic, reckless brinkmanship over federal government budgeting and debt payment—commentators often resort to the notion of political polarization as an explanation of our problems. A recent case in point is the disapproving mainstream media response to the Herman Cain Award (HCA) subreddit, which is devoted to showcasing the social media posts of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who get sick with Covid-19 and end up in hospital ICUs in need of breathing assistance.

Herman Cain, you might remember, was a failed candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.  He attended a Trump reelection campaign rally in Tulsa, posted a photo of himself and his entourage at the rally unmasked while belittling concerns about Covid, and then died of the disease six weeks later.

Herman Cain

For any given recipient of the Herman Cain Award, the presentation of captured social media posts follows a typical arc. The early posts feature memes and images disparaging Fauci, Biden, the medical establishment, mRNA vaccines, and masked and vaccinated Americans (“sheep”), intermixed with memes and images exalting Trump, the healing powers of Jesus, the adequacy of their own unvaccinated immune systems, and their independent and courageous selves (“lions”). Then comes a series of posts notifying followers of their falling ill with Covid and their shock at the severity of the symptoms, their eventual hospitalization and need for prayers. Finally, posting duties fall to a relative or friend of the afflicted, who reports on the increasingly more radical medical procedures undergone, the almost inevitable decline in organ health, and eventual death. GoFundMe appeals for donations to cover the obscenely high medical expenses round out many of the HCA posts.

Many of the comment threads for each post could fairly be characterized as largely (though not exclusively) being exercises in schadenfreude. Some posters belittle the pleas for aid from “prayer warriors” and the all-caps invocations of divine intervention to heal failing organs. Self-proclaimed liberal commentators sarcastically express their “dismay” at being “owned” by conservatives who have scored ideological points at the cost of their lives. Accusations are often lodged against rightwing media celebrities and GOP politicians who amplify the conspiratorial memes which appear again and again on the social media accounts of the HCA recipients.

Occasional critical reference is made to the facilitating roles played by foreign disinformation campaigns in broadcasting lies and to Big Tech in channeling lies to those most susceptible to believing them. But, by and large, the commentators are unrelentingly hostile to the HCA recipients themselves for “shitposting” the lies to their family, friends, and other social media followers, and leaving family members bereft and financially devastated when they die.  

In a recent New York Times article, an academic psychologist is paraphrased as arguing that “these websites are an outgrowth of the nation’s extreme polarization.”

To my mind, application of the notion of polarization to a political crisis or conflict encourages one to withhold judgment about the truth claims and reasonability of each of the two sides to a dispute. Particularly in the case of the HCA, polarization is too simplistic a way of understanding the fierceness of the social media pushback against vaccine denial and the avoidable deaths such denial causes. For me, the HCA posts are better understood in the context of a perennial question in my academic field about political dysfunction: is political crisis more a product of the pursuit of unaccountable power by corrupt elites or is it more a product of mass resentments which often find expression in campaigns of scapegoating and demonizing people?

Political theorist Michael Rogin usefully framed this issue within a longstanding debate between “realist” scholars who frame historical episodes of political dysfunction (e.g., McCarthyism) as products of elite-driven programs of political repression serving the interests of capitalism, the state apparatus or other powerful institutions, and “symbolist” scholars, who emphasize the dangers of popular indulgence in conspiratorial thinking and paranoid fears of racial, ethnic, religious or cultural “others.”

In response to the needless prolongation of the Covid pandemic, many of the HCA commentators seem to have taken the symbolist position, blaming rightwing members of the polity for indulging and promoting paranoia (e.g., drawing parallels between public health measures against Covid and Nazi genocide) and conspiratorial thinking (e.g., the offer of free vaccines as a Trojan horse for socialized medicine). To be sure, there are voices among them that take the realist position of blaming rightwing political and media elites for instrumentalizing populist anxieties for their own power interests.

So rather than characterize HCA commentary simply as “cruel sentiment,” I see much of that commentary as lodging symbolist (and, in some cases, realist) critiques of a deadly form of political dysfunction afflicting our public life, namely the perverse resistance of an irrational minority to reasonable and time-tested public health measures aimed at protecting all of us from exposure to a disease that kills far too many and disables many more.

M. Davout is a professor of political science and an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.

14 thoughts on “The Herman Cain Award Subreddit and What It Says about America’s Political Crisis

  1. I understand what M Davout wrote about through this lens of the Prophet writing some 2800 years ago, seeing what Natural Human Nature was doing with the People.

    Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
    Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!

    All this Time later, People think they know it all, and still don’t know what to believe? What is Real, and what is an illusion?

    God is one Word all Words come from for the Good or Evil.
    Jesus called it the Seed when planted, becomes useless and unfruitful because of the cares of THIS World and the deceitfulness of riches.

    For something different, yet related, Herman Cain has a Cameo appearance in a video in this posted online 10 years ago.



  2. Part of the Covid problem is a failure to lead and a failure to educate. We elect leaders like Trump and Biden who have no clue how to educate and reassure people. Trump in particular was prone to magical thinking, e.g. the virus will “disappear” with rising temperatures, or just take an unproven drug, etc.

    Biden gets basic facts wrong when his staff isn’t controlling what he says, which contributes to distrust. Conflicting messages and factual blunders are examples of incompetence, but some people see this not as incompetence but as evidence of manipulation and dishonesty.

    Generally speaking, Americans are wary of authority figures, especially politicians; we fancy ourselves to be individualists, even rebels. Skepticism of authority is usually a good thing, but it’s more problematic when you’re dealing with a pandemic. Covid doesn’t care what you believe or how hard you pray.

    What we could really use is a doctor/spokesperson of probity who can explain best practices based on the latest medical science, but that’s not Fauci, who’s been a mixed bag. So Americans have found their own sources of “authority,” driven in part by anti-intellectualism and the usual hyper-partisan politics.

    It’s tragic because it’s costing lives — perhaps hundreds of thousands of them.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The topic here is protean and I may miss the mark, but to me the United States is in a time of troubles as defined by the historian Arnold Toynbee.

    These are times when the mythos of a society has been forgotten, lost, perverted, subverted or some mix thereof. The rulers are all corrupt, and money and power are all that matters. The people realize they have no control over their lives or country and become despondent / servile or sullen / violent. Americans are following the latter path.

    For many, a new myth is necessary, be it Q-anon, fundamentalist Christianity, new age mysticism, fascism, or any number of belief systems. During a time of troubles the voices of reason and moderation are drowned out or ignored. The people want ‘strong’ men and father figures such as Trump to save them and lead them to the new day where America is great again.

    A time of trouble is a time of fear and anger. People have been lied to by their government and disbelieve even the reasonable and verifiable. The anti-vaxxers, Covid19 is a hoax, and insurrectionists all want to exercise what little power they still have. It is a form of proving they still exist as human beings, and that is why they are so obstinate in denying reality. Any cause that can fling an insult at the ruling government that has failed them feels good. It is a tragedy that they do not identify the real villains in society, the corporate thieves that have evaded taxes, that are trying to privatize everything , who fund the dis-information machines that are called the media, and buy our representatives at all levels of government.

    The future is not good for America according to Mr. Toynbee. At some point the people become so tired of fighting each other and the system that they elect a dictator who will bring stability to society. The cost is severe suppression of dissent and total loss of freedom.

    The Covid19 deniers, the anti-maskers, and anti-vaxxers are the visible symptoms of a deeply disturbed society. Is there a cure? Again Mr. Toynbee and history tells us no, there are only small respites followed by more troubles. It will take a real revolution to reset the mechanism of this society and that will be a fearsome thing to live through.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well put. I still have my Toynbee, “A Study of History.” Big histories like Toynbee’s have fallen out of favor, but he’s still worth reading, as you prove here.

      People have been rendered powerless while consistently being lied to. Small wonder that they are skeptical and seriously pissed off. Simultaneously, the pandemic response has favored the richest among us; consider the ballooning fortunes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. People are not blind to this. The rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer.

      Meanwhile, there’s no leadership at the top. Biden is a figurehead; his VP is a lightweight with no charisma. Money is being shoveled at the military to maintain an illusion of “strength.” And people keep dying …

      It doesn’t bode well …

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I reckon, perhaps, this phenomenon is a conflation of the ‘realist’ and ‘symbolist’ schools. For whatever reason there’s a unity of discourse that demonizes vaccines, progressive politicians, liberals and cultural elites which suggests and origin in power circles which remain at least partially concealed from view – the oppression of the powerful. At the same time this discourse takes the form of a conspiracy theory which draws in many different groups, including New Age hippie types and others who’re starting rub shoulders with neo-Fascists on platforms like Telegram. The result is an irrational and destructive mistrust of institutions already well underway in many democratic countries.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. You’re right—makes more sense to protest things that are rooted in reality.

          That said, I’ve been protesting wars, the rape of the environment, the abuse of animals, and a roster of other things for 40 years, to no avail.

          God bless the U.S. /s


  5. Will, there was a related commentary in the NYT yesterday referencing the self-reinforcing effects of polarization. Lots of interesting links. Doug Opinion | How to Tell When Your Country Is Past the Point of No Return

    | | | | | |


    | | | | Opinion | How to Tell When Your Country Is Past the Point of No Return

    The endangered state of American politics. |




    1. Yes — here’s the link:

      The more the media talks of polarization and makes it an issue, the more it becomes a media-fulfilling prophecy.

      I’ve written before that the richest among us are happy when the rest are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden. When Republicans are trying to “own” the “libtards,” the rich are happy. When Democrats are embracing identity politics and defending critical race theory, the rich are happy.

      The rich aren’t happy when we start banding together and insisting on fair taxation, better wages, affordable health care, and so on.

      So keep the proles polarized while our profits keep soaring!


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