Leadership Versus Pandering

Let me begin with a disclosure: Michael Leppert–whose recent blog post I will be echoing/quoting–is a personal friend. I have friends with whom I disagree from time to time, but thus far, I’ve found myself in agreement with Mike about pretty much everything–at least, everything political. (The joys of golf, not so much…)

If you don’t subscribe to his blog, you probably should.

Mike’s recent essay, reprinted in the Capital Chronicle, made a point pundits all too often fail to emphasize: the positions candidates take during their campaigns for public office tell us a lot about how they are likely to perform if they are successful.

I’ve made this poiint, albeit not as explicitly, by noting that candidates’ stances on reproductive liberty tell us a great deal about their willingness to use the power of government to impose their preferred beliefs on individuals who don’t share those beliefs. (Or, in the alternative, their willingness to impose the beliefs of the base to which they are pandering.) That’s why I take such positions into account even when the office for which the person is running is unlikely to have any say in the issue–it’s an important insight into the world-view of that candidate.

Of course, there are situations that do call for the exercise of state authority over private behavior. An obvious one is public health, and Leppert’s essay focuses on recent pronouncements by our odious U.S. Senator, Mike Braun, who is vacating that office because he now wants to be Indiana’s governor.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun announced that he has co-authored the “Freedom to Breathe Act.” The federal legislation will ban the federal government’s ability to implement mask mandates for domestic air travel, public transit systems and schools.

Casey Smith reported for he Indiana Capital Chronicle last week on the bill Braun authored with three other Senate Republican colleagues. He first said in his Wednesday statement, “We’re not going to go back to the top-down government overreach we saw during COVID.”

Now, here’s the difference between Mike Leppert and Sheila Kennedy. When I read something as asinine as this, I just want to beat my head against the nearest wall and scream about logic and respect for science. Mike, to his credit, unpacks it:

This gubernatorial candidate has some kind of issue with “top-down” leadership? Even when he adds “overreach” to his canned statement, he is signaling how he would have led in 2020, or more aptly, how he would have chosen not to lead. Senator, in a crisis, “top-down” leadership is the name of the game. It’s the job for which you are running. And it is unlike filing dead-on-arrival legislation with three other members of congress looking only to “own the libs.”

After explaining what the purposefully mischaracterized studies actually say–that masks have demonstrably worked, but failure to comply with mask mandates caused thousands of unnecessary deaths–Mike writes that

There’s more to Braun’s statement. He added, “Congress needs to say forcefully that these ineffective, unscientific mask mandates are not coming back in any way, shape, or form.” Again, it’s not the masking, it’s the mandates that failed. Newsflash: Americans routinely resist governmental mandates. If there is a negative sociological companion to our culture’s independence, it often is our collective selfishness. Again, it’s not the masking, it’s our refusal to see how the selfless act of wearing one could help someone else.

But the pronouncement that Braun will not support mask mandates “coming back in any way, shape, or form,” telegraphs that if he faces a public health crisis as governor, he simply won’t lead through it.

It’s hard to disagree with the post’s conclusion:

The world learned plenty from COVID-19. The biggest lesson is to expect the unexpected. The next pandemic could be worse. It will likely be different. And Indiana has a contender for the office of governor who doesn’t want government to lead if or when it comes.

Indiana’s governor is already constitutionally weak by comparison to most states. We certainly don’t need a new one who wants to make it weaker.

Of course, let’s be honest. Braun doesn’t want to be a weaker governor–he wants to appeal to the ignorance and anti-science prejudices of the GOP base, in order to win the right to use the power of government selectively–to advance his own agenda.

That said, I have no idea what Braun’s agenda is, since we’ve seen nothing even approaching thoughtfulness or rational policy prescriptions from him during his single Senate term.

Apparently, like so many of today’s politicians, he just wants to be someone important, rather than wanting to do something constructive or useful.


Florida Man

Wikipedia defines “Florida Man” as an “Internet meme first popularized in 2013, referring to an alleged prevalence of male persons performing irrational or absurd actions in the US state of Florida.”

Governor Ron DeSantis is the embodiment of a Florida Man.

I have previously cited my cousin Mort– a nationally respected cardiologist who has written about the various kinds of “snake oil” routinely touted by  crazy folks or those out to make a buck– in prior posts. (If you are interested in his book on the subject, you can find it here.) He and his wife recently moved to Florida, and he has periodically shared his frustration with the DeSantis administration in op-eds published in the local newspaper.

Mort is especially appalled by DeSantis’ recent all-out attack on vaccines–an attack that depends for its effectiveness on ignorance of–and a broad repudiation of– medical science. As his recent op-ed began,

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has recently embraced COVID-19 vaccine skepticism, and has formed a state-wide group to investigate vaccine “wrongdoing” But in so doing, he is testing the limits of how far political interests can usurp the role of science.

After reviewing for readers the rigorous testing process that all medications , including vaccines, must go through before they are made available to the public, Mort shared the results of multiple peer-reviewed studies of the COVID vaccines. These studies–which involved thousands of individuals–confirmed the efficacy of the vaccines in preventing serious illness and death.

DeSantis–playing to the anti-science, anti-intellectual MAGA base– insists that these results ignore dangerous side-effects.

One of the research studies Mort cited provides a fascinating insight into the incidence of side-effects. It found that. “general adverse systemic reactions were experienced by 35% of placebo recipients after the first dose and 32% after the second. Those receiving the active vaccine experienced initially such symptoms in 46%.”

Placebos, of course, are harmless substances with no therapeutic effect–make-believe medications used by researchers as a control when testing new drugs. And yet, 32% of those receiving what were essentially sugar pills reported adverse side-effects.

What have these studies found to be the actual incidence and severity of side-effects?

Serious allergic reactions to both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reportedly average between 2 and 10 per million doses. If this happens, healthcare providers can effectively and immediately treat these reactions. More common reports of inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or its coverings (pericarditis) are also rare and usually not severe. Reports of deaths after COVID-19 vaccination are also rare. The FDA requires healthcare providers to report any deaths after COVID-19 vaccination even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause. More than 657 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through December 7, 2022. During this time, 17,868 preliminary reports of deaths (0.0027%) among people who had previously received COVID-19 vaccine, a percentage not significantly higher that those receiving placebos.

DeSantis’ call for a grand jury investigation of wrongdoing connected to the vaccines has been roundly debunked. As FactCheck reported,

While announcing a request for a grand jury probe into “crimes and wrongdoing” related to the COVID-19 vaccines, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his panel of contrarian experts repeatedly suggested the shots were too risky. But such claims are unsupported and based on flawed analyses.

The vast majority of scientists, public health officials and other experts have endorsed the vaccines because the original randomized controlled trials and subsequent safety and effectiveness studies have shown the shots provide good protection against severe disease and death, with few safety concerns.

Leading this effort to misrepresent and politicize public health is Joseph Ladapo, DeSantis’ chosen surgeon general, who has promoted disproved treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, and questioned the safety of masking and vaccines. Ladapo has also recommended against vaccinating babies and children below the age of 5 and against vaccinating healthy children between the ages of 5 and 17. As FactCheck has reported, this advice is also at odds with that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC and numerous medical experts.

This deliberate effort to dissuade Florida residents from getting vaccinated is appalling. To the extent those residents believe DeSantis–and a majority of them did recently vote for him–the state will see many unnecessary deaths. I recently shared statistics showing that Republican deaths from COVID have greatly exceeded Democratic deaths, mainly as a result of lower vaccination levels among Republicans.

Worse still, Florida has a large elderly population, and the elderly are much more likely to die from COVID than younger, healthier individuals.

In his zeal to appeal to the GOP’S lowest common denominator, DeSantis is obviously willing to cause a few hundred extra deaths. He is thus the personification of a “male person performing irrational or absurd actions in the state of Florida.”


It’s Not Safe To Fool Mother Nature..

Those of us of a “certain age” may recall an old commercial for a margarine brand in which  “Mother Nature” was deceived into thinking the margarine was butter; when she realized she’d been tricked, she responded with a thunderbolt while declaring that it “Isn’t nice to fool Mother Nature!”

Evidently, the ad sold a lot of margarine.

It appears, however, that more recent efforts to deny reality have met with a different–and far more lethal–consequence. In a recent commentary, Michael Hicks has reported on a study conducted by three Yale researchers into the effects of politically-motivated disinformation on COVID death rates

Last week three Yale professors published a study of COVID-related deaths in the United States. The data they used matched COVID deaths, voter registration by party and age in two states—Florida and Ohio. One goal of the study was to test whether anti-vaccine or anti-mask campaigns contributed to differences in death rates by political affiliation. Here’s what they found.

Before the pandemic, as one might have expected, death rates between Republicans and Democrats  of the same age and condition but different political affiliation were statistically identical. In other words, political affiliation had no effect on death rates.

But then, denial–first, of COVID’s reality and then of the efficacy of vaccination–became a political marker, a way for MAGA Republicans to claim membership in the tribe and to  “own the libs.”

Slowly, the Republican death rate began to edge higher than the Democrat death rate, again controlling for age differences. In the weeks before the COVID vaccine was made available, a gap emerged, with Republicans of the same age dying at a 22 percent higher rate than Democrats in these two states. That is large, accounting for hundreds of extra dead Republicans. This might have been due to Republicans having been exposed to more anti-mask messaging, leading them to forego more public health recommendations.

However, once the COVID vaccine was introduced, the death rate difference between Republicans and Democrats of the same age ballooned to 153 percent.

Hicks notes that there are several other underlying risks associated with political affiliation, such as gun ownership or lifestyle choices. But as he points out,

those risks didn’t cause death rate differences until COVID came along. It was partisan differences in the consumption of anti-vaccine messaging that killed many, many more Republicans than Democrats….

Nationwide, at least 250,000 Americans died of COVID because they chose not to be vaccinated. More will continue to succumb to the disease. Every last one of these deaths resulted from the rejection of modernity and reason. These were voluntary and senseless deaths attributable to petulant ignorance. The people second-guessing a study about which they have no technical understanding, exhibit the same flawed reasoning as those who rejected the COVID vaccines.

The GOP’s constant attacks on “elites” and higher education have led to a widespread, very partisan rejection of science, expertise and reality. It isn’t limited to suspicion of vaccines–it’s everything from unwillingness to accept the medical complexities implicated in the abortion debates to denial of the reality of climate change. It’s fear of modernity, of a world without bright lines–a world where individuals have to trust that scientists and medical professionals know what they’re doing and are offering sound advice.

As Hicks puts it,

This acceptance of expertise, trust and accumulated knowledge is necessary to sustain our modern world. Yet, we live in a time when social media allows more-skilled charlatans to deceive us. I think those of us who came of age before the dissolution of national media are especially vulnerable to purposeful distortions. That vulnerability killed a quarter million Americans, and it endangers us all in the years ahead.

It isn’t just a pandemic. Today’s GOP stands for nothing more than the intentional embrace of conspiracies, the willingness–even eagerness– to label and blame “the Other” for any and all uncongenial realities, and the substitution of vengefulness for policy. Insane as it seems, the cited study confirms that MAGA Republicans are willing to die in order to “own the libs.”

“Petulant ignorance” might just as well be the MAGA motto.


Disinformation Kills

Propaganda takes all sorts of different forms, and serves a variety of interests. Does the latest scientific knowledge undercut your fundamentalist religious or political beliefs? Does the upcoming election pit your preferred candidate against one who is espousing more popular measures? Are you frantic because “those people” are asserting their entitlement to rights equal to your own, or because those you consider “real Americans” are losing their privileged  social or cultural positions?

Lie. Target those lies to an audience likely to be unsure or unaware of the facts and thus receptive to your preferred version of reality. Examples emerge daily. Allow me to share a few.

From Axios, we learn:

In March 2020, when everything changed, roughly nine in 10 Americans, regardless of their preferred media outlet, said they trusted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Within weeks, though, that trust was plunging among Americans who mostly watch Fox News or other conservative outlets, as well as those who cited no source.
By the end of last month, just 16% of those who said they get most of their news from Fox or other conservative outlets still said they trust the CDC, compared to 77% of those who favor network news and major national newspapers and 87% of those who primarily watch CNN or MSNBC.

People who primarily got their news from Fox or other conservative media outlets were also more likely to be unvaccinated, and to report that they had tested positive for COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic.

An essay from the New York Times pointed out the under-appreciated damage being done by those despicable Rightwing “groomer” accusations.

As we head into the 2022 midterm elections, calling someone a “groomer” or a “child abuser” has become the conservative attack du jour. What once felt like language reserved for the followers of QAnon, a fringe community united by a central conspiracy theory that America is run by an elite ring of pedophiles, has seeped into the mainstream. The use of these terms has even sparked the anti-gay slur “OK, groomer,” a play on the phrase “OK, boomer,” which is often used by young people to disregard or mock retrograde arguments made by baby boomers…

If the politicians making those accusations were actually concerned about ending child abuse, the kinds of institutions they would be challenging would include religious organizations, youth sports and even the nuclear family — systems that exert control over children and their bodies. These are the venues where child sexual abuse commonly occurs. The misuse of these words is not about stopping abuse, but rather a reassertion of homophobia, gender hierarchy and political control.

The author of the essay, a survivor of actual childhood sexual abuse, points out that in the real world, this indiscriminate and dishonest accusation is “dangerous and corrosive to the very real and devastating experience of sexual abuse. To use these words in this way voids them of their real meaning and desensitizes civil society to bodily harms.”

It isn’t only America’s frantic culture warriors. Russia is fighting back against growing global ostracism by concocting a wholly-invented threat posed by Ukrainian “bio-labs.” That claim, according to NBC, has been eagerly seized on by the American Right.

Russia’s early struggles to push disinformation and propaganda about Ukraine have picked up momentum in recent days, thanks to a variety of debunked conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine. Much of the false information is flourishing in Russian social media, far-right online spaces and U.S. conservative media, including Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News…

 Most of the conspiracy theories claim that the U.S. was developing and plotting to release a bioweapon or potentially another coronavirus from “biolabs”’ throughout Ukraine and that Russia invaded to take over the labs. Many of the theories implicate people who are often the targets of far-right conspiracy thinking — including Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden — as being behind creating the weaponized diseases in the biolabs.

We don’t know how many people died as a direct result of COVID disinformation, or how much real damage has been done by ludicrous “grooming” charges. We cannot calculate the percentage of wartime deaths in the Ukraine that can be attributed to the fact that several GOP Senators adopted the biolab fantasy and delayed the sending of critically-needed aid.

But there is one death from persistent disinformation that we can easily see: the death of civic discourse and Americans’ ability to govern ourselves.

I used to tell my students that if I say a piece of furniture is a chair and you say it’s a table, we will never be able to agree on its use. If you prefer fantasy A to uncomfortable but demonstrable fact B, or “alternative facts” to reality, that preference is deadly to the democratic enterprise. 


This Is Important

I know I harp a lot on the negative consequences of today’s media and information environment, but it matters. When you consider the combined effects of the ability to choose your own reality and embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy (which I have been harping about for years), one of those effects is shockingly low levels of trust.

Americans don’t trust government, they don’t trust business, they don’t trust scientists and–as we are seeing–they don’t trust doctors.

And it matters.

A recent study  published by the Lancet and reported in the Washington Post linked those low levels of trust to America’s relatively poor response to COVID. The article began by reporting on the success of Vietnam in maintaining low levels of infection, despite the fact that, according to traditional tenets of preparedness, that country wouldn’t have been expected to perform as well as it did.

The research uncovered an unexpected reason.

“What Vietnam does have, that seems to potentially explain what has happened, is that they have very high trust in government — among the highest in the world,” said Bollyky, who is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

The peer-reviewed study was published Tuesday in the Lancet, a top medical journal, following 10 months of research by Bollyky, his colleague Erin Hulland, a scholar at the University of Washington, and a team of dozens.
The aim of the study was to answer a question that has been dubbed the “epidemiological mystery” of the pandemic: Why did the coronavirus hit some countries so much harder than others?

As the researchers explored that question, they realized that the traditional models for pandemic preparedness didn’t fit what they were seeing. Countries with better outcomes had high levels of trust in government and other citizens. Perceptions of government corruption correlated with worse outcomes.

Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, and an expert who was not involved in the study, said the research was evidence for what many already argue.

“Trust in government and strength of community engagement is critical to public health response,” Katz wrote in an email. “Experts from multiple disciplines have pointed to the importance of risk communication, community engagement and trust as critical to public health messages and policies being implemented. The findings in this paper emphasize just how important this is.”

Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said the research showed that “the battle of human being against pathogen was mediated by governments.”

“It’s really a Chicken Little situation,” Sharfstein added. “If people don’t believe what the government is saying, then people will be less likely to take the precautions that they need to take.”

It turns out that trust in government and in your fellow citizens is strongly associated with vaccination rates, among other things.

I’ve always disliked people who say “I told you so”–but in 2009, I wrote a book that told you so. It was titled Distrust, American Style and in it I argued that the social distrust that was already pervasive began with distrust of government. (As one chapter argued , “Fish Rot from the Head.”)

In that book, I marshaled data produced by numerous political scientists showing that over the preceding decades, Americans had become steadily less trusting of each other, and that as America’s diversity increases, our trust in our neighbors declines. My research convinced me that the growth of diversity isn’t the reason we trust less. (That old academic axiom that correlation isn’t causation is correct.) I was–and remain–convinced that the culprit is a loss of faith in our social and governing institutions– and that the remedy is to make them trustworthy once more, starting with government.

I argued for the importance of several electoral and systemic reforms : elimination of gerrymandering, ensuring that–if we can’t get rid of it– the electoral-college is reformed to reflect the results of the popular vote, and Improved government accountability. We need these and a number of other reforms so that Americans can be confident that constitutional checks and balances are honored and that government agencies are run by true experts, not political appointees.

In the years since that book was published (shameless plug: it’s still available on Amazon), trust has declined even more precipitously. Americans no longer trust experts or expertise, and a frightening number of them are actively working to dismantle the country–egged on by a far-right media taking advantage of our widespread ignorance of basic constitutional structures.

When you don’t understand how things are supposed to work, you don’t trust government–you trust Fox “News.”