Whom to Blame

In a time of crisis, like the one we are living through now, it is only natural that many of us want to assign responsibility for at least part of our suffering to human versus microbial causes. And in an age of extreme political polarization, it is no surprise that part of the response to the spread of Coronavirus in the US has been partisan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made this plain in an interview on CNN when she attacked President Trump for his handling of the situation, pointing out that he knew of the seriousness of the virus threat early in the year, but either ignored or downplayed it. This was summed up in her variation of a now-famous phrase: “When did this president know about this [the seriousness of the virus threat], and what did he know?”

Unsurprisingly, the President's allies fired back, highlighting that while Trump was making preparations and responding to the virus by, among other things, instituting a travel ban from China, Pelosi and the Democrats were wasting months of crucial time early in the year focused on an impeachment process they could never win.

If someone wanted to rely entirely on partisan leanings to adjudicate the issue, it would be easy to add failure to act (or act sufficiently strongly) in January and February to the bill of indictment against one side or the other. But to get to the nut of the matter, a little logic-checking – aided by a Toulmin diagram – might help us sort things out.

We can start by mapping out the accusation Pelosi made on CNN into Grounds leading to a Claim, supported by a Warrant:

To this, the Republicans have made this rebuttal (in red) to the Grounds of her argument:

Later this year I will introduce you to fallacies, but for now this sort of “so’s your old man” line of attack is called the Tu Quoque fallacy (“tu quoque” translating to “you as well”). Tu Quoque tends to be weak since it is often used to distract from the matter at hand by shifting blame elsewhere. In this instance, however, the rebuttal has some bite since Democratic prioritization of impeachment in January and February paralyzed not just the legislative branch of the government, but the executive branch as well (not to mention obsessing the media).

This might not ultimately matter, however, since we can add a rebuttal to the Republican rebuttal that takes into account how unprepared all of us were with the level of threat posed by Coronavirus:

Given how many of us were going about our business as usual through the second week of March when schools and other public and private institutions began to shut down, it’s fair to say that it was not only the nation’s leaders who were unaware of the level of the virus threat. For example, many people (including my family) were busy making travel plans for March and did not cancel them until the destinations we planned to visit shut down.

But if this rebuttal to the rebuttal can be used to exonerate Pelosi and the Democrats, it also serves as a rebuttal against the original accusation against Donald Trump’s fiddling while the nation began to burn. While this doesn’t exonerate either party for irresponsible behavior since the crisis began, it does provide an important lesson on when to respond to crises of this type in the future.

Coronavirus is often referred to as “novel,” but the real novelty was a pandemic able to threaten and shut down the entire planet. For years, we have heard about the threat of diseases such as SARS with the ability to spread geometrically, but in all those cases the threat was contained early enough to avoid global infection.

Threats warned about that never materialized created precedent that guided our thinking, which is why all of us fiddled until casualties started mounting. But now we have a new precedent: a contagious disease that has shut down the world, leaving us stuck in our houses for weeks or months, just as our ancestors used to hide in their huts until the latest plague passed. And even if (hopefully when) we get the current situation under control, no one (including no leader or citizen) is likely to take the threat of deadly microbes un-seriously again.

The complexity of this argument means it is not clear what to rate as strong or weak (the original argument, the rebuttal or the rebuttal to the rebuttal). But this exercise does demonstrate the strength of the logic-checking process which turned an exercise in assigning blame (i.e., determining who did what wrong in the past) into a prescription for how all of us can do better in the future. And it is to arguments regarding the past, present and future that we will turn to next.

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