It’s also good fodder for social media. There’s an enormous ecosystem, particularly on the right, predicated on identifying performative “virtue signaling” by Democratic politicians, celebrities or members of the media. “Virtue signaling” is a now-common pejorative for doing precisely what’s described above: dismissing an act as necessarily insincere. Using virtue signaling as a descriptor is, ironically, an example of what it describes, ostentatiously indicating one’s own position on the issue.
All of this is fairly academic until it intersects with real-world issues such as the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks in large part to President Trump’s demonstrated disinterest in endorsing efforts to contain the spread of the virus, efforts at containment — such as wearing masks or avoiding indoor gatherings of groups of people — have become fodder for demonstrations of support or opposition.
Particularly among high-profile elected officials. Take, for example, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s disparagement of his colleague Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on Twitter.
Cruz (Tex.) explicitly criticizes Brown for virtue signaling by wearing a mask on the floor of the Senate and for criticizing Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) for not wearing one. Cruz suggests that Brown bore no risk from Sullivan, should the U.S. senator from Alaska have been carrying the virus, but, as Brown says in the clip, his concern is for the Senate staffers working directly in front of Sullivan.
You can see one stand and speak with Sullivan at about the 38-second mark.
There’s certainly an aspect of Brown’s presentation that is performative. His entire speech is about how the Senate and, in particular, Republican leadership isn’t taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. His criticism of Sullivan is meant to highlight that point.
Cruz apparently assumes that Brown is being insincere or ridiculous in his criticism rather than making a sincere point in a pointed way. The U.S. senator from Texas then does precisely what he accuses Brown of doing, making an ostentatious display of his own views of the appropriate response to coronavirus containment measures; namely, that Brown is overreacting. Cruz’s tweet then set off a number of largely performative responses on social media bolstering Brown. And on it goes.
In the abstract, all of this is a familiar if tiring dance. On this specific issue, though, the effect is alarming. We’ve repeatedly seen measures aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus framed as insincere or performative by the political right or, at the extremes, as efforts deriving from nothing more than an interest in exerting control over the American public. Cruz’s tweet applies familiar left-right dynamics, but the specific effect is to contribute to a sense that containment efforts are simply a political tool.
That sense is now pervasive and is almost certainly one of the reasons that the coronavirus has spread much more widely in heavily Republican areas over the past several months than in mostly Democratic ones.
Framing coronavirus containment as Democratic hysteria against God-given free will has real-world implications, contributing to a surge in new cases and the recent increase in coronavirus-related deaths. But, again, that framing is itself often performative — not necessarily insincere but leveraged for attention and plaudits.
Consider South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R). Noem has offered hints about her plans with her political appearances this year, hosting President Trump in South Dakota over the Fourth of July, speaking at a dinner in Iowa in the summer and campaigning for Trump in New Hampshire last month. To that end, she has embraced signaling her own preference for taking a hands-off approach to the virus. In September, she mocked the idea of “social distancing” by posting a video of herself hunting, saying that it was “how we do social distancing in South Dakota.”
Even as cases have surged in her state (note the map above) and hospitals are nearing capacity, Noem has ostentatiously rejected calls to endorse mandates aimed at containing the virus. Her office was asked by a local newspaper last week how she would respond if asked by President-elect Joe Biden to introduce a mask mandate once he’s inaugurated.
“It’s a good day for freedom. Joe Biden realizes that the president doesn’t have the authority to institute a mask mandate. For that matter, neither does Governor Noem,” the office responded in a statement, “which is why she has provided her citizens with the full scope of the science and trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones."
There’s evidence to suggest that the current spike in coronavirus cases was initiated by a massive motorcycle rally held in Sturgis, S.D., in August. Noem enthusiastically welcomed the event.
Again, it’s not necessarily the case that Noem’s response to the pandemic isn’t heartfelt any more than Cruz’s isn’t. She does clearly recognize, though, that there’s political value in being seen as prioritizing individual liberty over mandates, whatever the cost to her constituents.
The value offered by standing athwart containment measures isn’t only political. Conservative commentators have similarly embraced efforts to combat the virus as part of their long-standing presentation of the left as draconian control freaks. On Fox News, for example, there have been segments over the past 24 hours incorrectly disputing the efficacy of masks and dismissing state-level efforts to limit the size of Thanksgiving celebrations.
One Fox personality, appearing on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” compared such efforts to the Trump administration’s “family separation” policy, which forcibly removed children from their parents when arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Scott Atlas, who Trump asked to join the White House coronavirus task force after the president saw his appearances on the same network, similarly disparaged attempts to scale down Thanksgiving.
“This kind of isolation is one of the unspoken tragedies of the elderly who are now being told don’t see your family at Thanksgiving,” Atlas said on a Fox News program Monday evening. “For many people this is their final Thanksgiving, believe it or not.”
Atlas, in fact, is a great example of the way in which sincere views are muddied by performative displays. He clearly believes that allowing the virus to spread is useful, as he wrote back in April. But he also leans into his role as pro-Trump contrarian.
But Atlas’s and Noem’s views can’t be separated from the effects of those views. Folding the pandemic into a familiar pattern of partisan performance ignores that the pandemic is not a standard partisan debate. Here, the recommendations aimed at containing the virus come from nonpartisan epidemiologists (a group that does not include Atlas) and are focused on reducing the number of people who die before a vaccine is deployed.
Wearing a mask and limiting the size of Thanksgiving gatherings are not popular positions, making them quite useful for those looking to make political points. They are nonetheless unusually important. Brown’s complaint was, in part, that elected leaders had a specific responsibility to model proper behavior to reinforce its utility. Cruz saw that complaint as a way to make a political point of his own.
Public health is just another political tug-of-war, even nearly 250,000 deaths in.