American political discourse has devolved into two tribes: liberal and conservative. These tribes provide their members with strong views on just about everything: tax rates, charter schools, abortion, trial lawyers, gun control, bathrooms, affirmative action, health care policy, immigration and everything in between.
The tribes dominate politics, academia and the national media, which give predictable reactions to any new event, based on the tribe they represent. No one asks, “I wonder what the editorial board of The New York Times will think about this?” We know what they will think.
The only variable is how the predictable support or outrage is conveyed. Ditto for The Wall Street Journal.
This is all very silly, of course, and boring. Why isn’t it acceptable, for example, to be for religious schools, for gun control, against class-action lawsuits and for universal health insurance? Similar mixtures of opinions and values are common among real people, but heretical to the tribes.
Tribal membership has its benefits. Among these are the joys of certainty and a ready excuse for righteous anger. Indeed, a case could be made that the entire tribal structure is fueled by a need to express scorn and anger in a socially acceptable fashion.
The 80 percent of us who aren’t card-carrying tribal members have become somewhat inured to tribal warfare. It’s destructive, certainly, but can often be ignored.
But now it becomes serious. Now the tribes are taking sides on COVID-19. There are liberal and conservative strategies for dealing with the pandemic — even liberal and conservative treatments.
Everything I’ve learned in my 40-plus years as a physician tells me that wearing masks in public and not touching other people will greatly reduce the infection rate. But not wearing masks may become a badge of tribal membership.
Meanwhile, the other tribe greets any uptick in COVID-19 cases in red states with near-celebratory derision. For people with secure incomes to pontificate on the necessity of stay-at-home orders for those who are without the means to support their families is obscene.
Local officials everywhere are struggling with exceptionally difficult choices and limited information. They’re doing the best they can. Any path they choose will include continued deaths and fewer jobs. To critique that process from a tribal perspective is demeaning and destructive.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a human challenge, not a tribal one. It’s not going away soon. It will continue to cause great damage to human health and livelihood. Each of us has an obligation to face those issues honestly and not flee into the comfortable, destructive embrace of tribes.
It will be a tragedy if we don’t wear masks in public places. The temptation will be to blame one tribe. But in reality, both tribes have contributed equally to create a poisonous environment where such stupidity can flourish.