Radiation Politics In A Pandemic

Taylor Dotson

Within the past several weeks, armed protestors have descended upon the Michigan capital as the state’s governor extended a stay-at-home order, and some Texas businesses opened back up early in defiance of the state’s regulations, under the protection of militiamen armed with AR-15s. A short documentary film suggesting that the pandemic was intentionally set in motion went viral, garnering twice as many social media interactions as the Pentagon’s recently released UFO tapes. How did we get here?

In his 2007 book The Honest Broker, political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. characterized two different idealized styles of decision-making: Tornado Politics and Abortion Politics. In the case of an impending tornado, citizens are bound together by a common purpose: survival. And simply acquiring information — whether through science or direct observation — drives the negotiation about how to respond. In contrast, Abortion Politics is characterized by a plurality of values, and new scientific information only contributes additional complexity to the divergent goals and motivations.

As Pielke admits, this is a somewhat rough characterization. Many contentious issues have elements of both Tornado Politics and Abortion Politics. The conflict over how to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic has been little different. Yet what has been striking is how many people seem to insist that the pandemic be treated as a case of Tornado Politics, as if it were a cyclone bearing down on us. But it hasn’t been this kind of case. Every day, its politics has come more and more to resemble that of abortion, as scientific information about the virus has become weaponized for partisan ends.

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