The Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications at Shepherd University Presents Four (Very Different) Perspectives

When it comes to COVID-19, it is often said “we’re all in this together.” But if we are in together, why can’t we get along? The Stubblefield Institute asked this question to two members of its Board of Advisors, Peter Loge and Kelly Johnston, and two Shepherd University students, Mikayla Hambrick and Jordan Jalil. Here are their very diverse answers.

Peter Loge

Peter Loge

If we are all this together, why can’t we all get along? Part of the answer is that while we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.

COVID-19 doesn’t care who you are. The virus does not care about where you pray or where you get your news. The virus just attacks you. And through you, it attacks other people. By the end of May a million and a half people in the United States had been diagnosed with the virus, more than 100,000 of whom died. Unemployment is at the highest level since the Great Depression.

This is our storm.

But why are we in different boats? Why do Democrats take this pandemic more seriously than Republicans? The virus doesn’t care who I vote for – why should who I vote for shape my opinion of the virus?

One answer is that President Trump, some of his supporters and a handful of media are trying to divide us.

Part of a President’s job is uniting Americans in times of crisis. President Trump is doing the opposite. He dismissed President Bush’s call to put partisanship aside. He praised armed protesters who attacked a journalist. This same protest group called for the hanging of Dr. Anthony Fauci – the man at the center of the US response to the pandemic. Eric Trump called COVID-19 a partisan hoax that “would magically disappear” after the election (dangerous nonsense repeated by Bexar County, TX Republican Chair Cynthia Brehm). At a moment when Americans need to come together, the President of the United States and some in his party are pushing us apart.

Partisan media are helping the President and hurting everyone else. A University of Chicago study found that viewers of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox were more likely to contract COVID-19 because he diminished the virus’ risk. Another survey found that regular viewers of Fox are less than half as likely to be extremely concerned about the pandemic as viewers of other news outlets are – and more than twice as likely to not be concerned at all.

The President relentlessly attacks the press, democratic institutions, and even his own experts. Fox News tirelessly promotes the President. The combination is threatening lives and straining our democracy. Not all conservatives or Republicans support President Trump and many who support his policies take the pandemic seriously. President Trump is also not all of the problems with American politics – but as conservative columnist William Kristol noted, “he’s a symptom who makes the problem much worse.” A lot of Fox viewers put public safety above going to happy hour. And for all the press they’re getting, not that many people are marching cheek-to-jowl insisting that their freedom to spread a virus that has already killed 100,000 people in the US outweighs my right to avoid getting sick.

Americans want news and analysis rooted in fact, not politics. We want President Trump to join Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama in encouraging us to come together, reminding us that we are one nation, in one boat during this storm. Absent a leader who unites us, we are pulling our individual rafts together the best we can.

Peter Loge is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and the director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. He spent 25 years working in leadership staff positions in the US House, Senate, and at the FDA in the Obama administration.

Kelly Johnston

Kelly D. Johnston

Are we really “all in this together?”

COVID_19 disproportionately affects people over 70 years of age. This insidious disease has dramatically affected age groups and genders differently.

The prevalence of COVID infections correlates with population density. The greater New York City area, including parts of three states, tragically comprise about half of our nation’s infections and deaths from COVID.

The disagreements emerge when someone says that the virus originated in Wuhan, China. There is ample evidence that China acted malignly as the virus spread.

But discussion deteriorates when the “blame gaming” begins. US Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), said on national television that Donald Trump, not China, was to blame for the coronavirus epidemic.

No question that the federal government fumbled its early reaction. From the beginning, President Trump relied heavily on experts, including Drs. Anthony Fauci (National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases) and Robert Redfield (Centers for Disease Control), both long-time civil servants. The World Health Organization misled Fauci, who, in January and even February, repeatedly said Americans were at “low risk” for the disease. Democratic leaders accused President Trump of racism and xenophobia for his January 31st China travel ban, which Fauci credits for saving lives.

Dr. Helen Chu, a Washington State infectious disease expert and her colleagues are credited with developing the first effective US test for Coronavirus. The CDC dismissed it. Meanwhile, the CDC frittered away nearly six weeks before rolling out a botched test. They finally unleashed private laboratories in a race to catch up. That lost time is why we were so behind on testing and contributed to decisions to shut down our economy.

Our hospitals, thankfully, were never overwhelmed. COVID deaths and hospitalizations are on a downward slope. When, and how, should we reopen the economy?

Sadly, the debate quickly devolves into the accusation that “you want people to die.” The question is a horrific logical fallacy. We must protect the vulnerable while allowing healthy people at low risk for hospitalization, with precautions, to begin returning to normal life.

How did we get here?

First, the outbreak was immediately politicized by partisans who wanted to make America’s “failure to respond” all about President Trump. Not everything is “political.”

Second, identity politics has infected our national discussion. It began innocently when “diversity” came on stage as a national movement. While admirable and well-intended, it has sadly transmogrified into tribalism, division, and victimhood.

Third, social media – or, as Purdue University President Mitch Daniels calls it, the “antisocial media” – makes it far too easy for malcontents to hide behind their keyboards to demean people. And the shutdown, where we must “socially distance,” has probably made things worse.

Crises bring out the best and worse in us.

My advice: First, embrace a culture of humility; consider others no less worthy of respect than yourself. We can learn something from everyone. Humility is not weakness; it reflects maturity and wisdom.

Second, be skeptical. Look less for confirmation of your own biases and focus on the best information to make an informed decision.

Third, reject intersectionality, victimhood, and tribalism. If we’re “all in this together,” let’s act like it.

Finally, reject alarmism, fear-mongering, and an “all things are political” approach. Remember these words inscribed on the late author Alex Haley’s tombstone: “Find the good and praise it.”

Kelly D. Johnston was appointed by Majority Leader Bob Dole as the 28th Secretary of the United States Senate and spent 16 years as Vice President of Governmental Affairs the Campbell Soup Company. Previously, Kelly held several leadership positions within the executive and legislative branches.

Mikayla Hamrick

Mikayla Hamrick

Growing up in a southern Christian household, the Golden Rule was embroidered upon pillows and inscribed above doorways. I was raised this way— “Doing unto others as I would have them do unto me.” After forming my independent political views later in life though, I wondered if this foundational principle was truly upheld in the community of conservatism for everyone, regardless of their preconceived status in society. With conservative pushback of COVID-19 protection procedures, it became clear to me that it never was.

To understand these enormous implications, let us closer examine the foremost concept of ethics introduced to the malleable minds of high school students—the social contract. The theory that has inspired the very foundation of our country and discusses the relationship between natural and governing rights directly contrasts with the shallow pleas of anti-masked, self-proclaimed patriots. The same supreme documents held so fervently and concretely by conservatives—The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence—specifically outline the importance of the social contract and of agreeing to be governed by the moral and political obligations outlined in the documents to mutually benefit the society in which we live. Anarchy arises when the social contract is broken and individuals decide that the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not apply to all people.

The “right to choose” debate to reopen businesses and drive forward the economy is perhaps the most convincing argument of the conservative counterpart, but it too is a flawed construct. When considering reopening non-essential businesses, the focus remains with the employer, not the employed. By viewing our current situation of isolation and social distancing as infringing on personal freedoms, an acknowledgment must be made that the choice to ignore safety guidelines is sacrificing the right to life of the working class. The health ramifications of these decisions do not fall on the wealthy politicians waging human life with party loyalty, but on the low-income employees forced to return to work despite their already higher likelihood of suffering from preexisting health conditions and lack of guaranteed health benefits. The divide in this nation regarding not only the pandemic, but also every other system needing reform, lies within one underlying struggle—the constant acquisition of wealth, power, and dominance versus the value of human life.

This tradeoff is uncomfortable to accept, but it is more recognizable in America every day. Life’s purpose has dwindled to its economic benefit, and even more horrifyingly, the leaders of the country profit from this reality. The effects of this political sensationalism have led to candidate worship and distrust with the media. In turn, belittling the intelligence and warnings of medical professionals and any opposition has created a snowball of conspiracy aimed at those attempting to subdue the effects of the virus. It is a consequently dangerous stance to take for a party claiming to rely on fact over feeling.

The more than 100,000 names of U.S. citizens dead from COVID-19 are fact though. The family members sharing photos and memories of their late loved ones—pleading for resolution—are fact. The documented extreme emotional turmoil of doctors and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients is fact. But of course, there is feeling involved too. It is pain. It is suffering. It is empathy. It is agreeing to be a functioning member of society dedicated to preserving life for you and others. Simply stated, it is the Golden Rule.

Mikayla Hamrick is a junior at Shepherd University majoring in English. She is also a reporter and columnist for the Martinsburg Journal, a daily newspaper, and is the recipient of a West Virginia Press Association Foundation 2020 summer internship and scholarship.

Jordan Jalil

Jordan Jalil

Civility is derived from the Latin word civilis which means being a good and decent citizen – today, it seems that not only is the word in practice absent from politics, but it’s true essence and gravity has been lost on the average American. As the country remains shut-in, it is difficult to find the silver lining behind these portentous circumstances – but perhaps the surplus of time will avail people the opportunity to ponder the deeper implications of our country’s political condition.

It has become America’s knee-jerk reaction to pin the blame on politicians of the opposite political party, which provides cathartic vindication. This complete abnegation of personal responsibility fosters an apathetic pathology that is adverse to the requisite critical thinking, discernment, and lucid articulation necessary to exercise our Constitutional right to hold our leaders accountable. Aristotle writes in The Nicomachean Ethics that mankind is exclusively political by nature, principally because we have the capacity to reason, speak, and make moral decisions. These innate things are essential to being good citizens, and conversely, when we don’t have substantive and rational dialogues, we cease to be good citizens.

We have relegated our political wills to designated mouthpieces; the media dictates how, what, and why we think, and well-meaning citizens look towards figureheads and politicians to wage the ideological, cultural, and political wars and conversations that we refuse to have because we are uninformed and apathetic. The result is a political culture not dissimilar to that of two rival sports teams, predicated on entertainment value, rivalry, winners and losers – only in the real world those victories and defeats materialize into solemn political conquests borne by the cheering bystanders on either side. Good or bad, America will never be the same after COVID-19.

The division is simple – should we be leery of the ‘temporary’ suspension of certain constitutional rights justified in the name of public safety, or does government truly know what is best for the American people? More bluntly, what will be the citizen’s role in post-COVID-19 America. It’s not a political position to desire safety and protection – nor is it political to believe that you have a right to leave your home and attend a religious service, yet so often we forgo the mental exercise of empathizing and engaging with two legitimate viewpoints, in exchange for a convenient, cocktail-friendly and ‘universally’ uncontroversial classifications of what is “republican and democrat”. Unfortunately, in times of perceived national tranquility we haven’t had meaningful conversations about how to balance these competing interests in light of our constitutional framework, and consequently have the current disquietude and mistrust at the familial level and through highest echelons of local, state and federal government.

In the absence of a well-rounded, informed, and civically engaged citizenry, it is a historical inevitability that the government will fill the void – republican or democrat. The question that people are grappling with, is whether this crisis is the catalyst for greater protection, faith, and legitimacy in our government, or the systematic dismantling of our civil liberties. It is time that Americans start talking to each other and figuring out what it means to be a good citizen in either of these scenarios.

Jordan Jalil is a Junior double-majoring in political science and economics at Shepherd University. She is the captain of Shepherd’s national champion debate and forensics team and the student representative on the Stubblefield Institute Board of Advisors.