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
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.
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.