Within the space of a couple of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has changed all of our lives and brought us to brink of both an economic disaster and a public health catastrophe. All of our normal pastimes have been put on hold along with our more serious pursuits.
All, that is, with one prominent exception. The hyper-partisan political warfare that has afflicted our society has continued at the same pace and intensity as before the virus turned everything upside down. Indeed, with more people stuck at home with little to do but to watch the grim news on TV or to vent on social media, the result is not a collective sobering up as we move away from snark and recriminations to face the challenge together. Rather, the political temperature of the country has remained perilously high.
There have been some examples of political figures rising above the fray to provide leadership and inspiration. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, heretofore a ruthless partisan, has found a way to the hearts of many who were his opponents by speaking not only authoritatively about the crisis but sensitively about the troubles so many of us are dealing with. And some in Congress have shown a new willingness to reach across the aisle to deal with the pandemic.
But that reaction has not been uniform, neither among politicians nor their followers. To the contrary, the fear that the virus has bred has not tamped down anger at political foes. For years, Americans have been blaming each other not only for the nation’s problems, but also for creating the abyss of anger into which we have collectively spiraled. Too many of us think the only solution to everything is political — i.e., defeat President Donald Trump or re-elect him — as part of an apocalyptic battle between adherents of darkness and light.
At a time when politics has replaced religion in the lives of many Americans, it is, perhaps, understandable that this is how we would conduct our political discourse. But the onset of the virus illustrates just how dangerous it is to continue down that same path.
It’s easy to blame Trump for his willingness to torch his opponents and the press when he should be concentrating on the crisis. But he’s hardly alone in his inability to transcend political warfare. Moreover, the rush to apportion blame for a situation that was unlikely to have been significantly ameliorated by any conceivable strategy that would have had much support before things got this bad is more about partisanship than anything else.
The comparison with political warfare in Israel is instructive. In contrast, to Trump, who initially viewed anxiety about the virus as an attempt by his foes to attack him (it was his opponents seeking to weaponize the issue that he called a “hoax” rather than the virus itself), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jumped at the opportunity to play his familiar role as the able commander-in-chief in a wartime crisis. Whereas in the United States, skepticism about the need to take action to “flatten the curve” mostly came from Trump supporters, in Israel, it has been Netanyahu’s opponents who have been alarmed at his willingness to exercise power to stop the spread of the contagion.
It is not unreasonable to worry whether the rush to take actions that are leading to an economic collapse will ultimately bring as much suffering as the virus. Similarly, it is not unreasonable to be anxious about whether giving governments so much power in order to keep us healthy will undermine democracy. And concerns about the pandemic have gotten mixed up with both the presidential election here and the ongoing coalition standoff in Israel. But our collective urge to political activism should, at least for the moment, be directed at more important problems than the fate of Trump or Netanyahu.
Rather than indulging in partisanship, Jewish values ought to be impelling us to speak up about issues like whether the well-being of the elderly will be sacrificed as part of a wartime-style triage system as health-care facilities are overwhelmed. The Jewish issue of the moment ought to be to push those in charge of this emergency to make their decisions guided by a moral compass that is informed by compassionate bioethics, not score-settling intended to influence future elections. If we don’t focus on the true challenge of the moment — the fate of our precious family members who are most vulnerable to the virus — then we will soon discover that there are worse things than seeing our political opponents triumph.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.