The Governor Who Cried Wolf

Why Roy Cooper’s COVID Rhetoric is So Damaging

On a sunny and fair afternoon three days before Thanksgiving, Gov. Roy Cooper strode swiftly to the lectern at the Emergency Operations Center, removed a plain black mask from his face, and issued what he termed a stark warning for the people of North Carolina.

“We are in danger,” he said. “Our actions now will determine the fate of many.”

In Gov. Cooper’s view, there was nothing to be thankful for, only a “dire” update to give on COVID-19. There was no encouragement, only enforcement. No faith or family, only fear.

Over the past eight months, Gov. Cooper has consistently used fear as his main rhetorical device on COVID-19, attempting to scare the people of North Carolina into doing the right things to prevent its spread.

Gov. Cooper has described the virus as “sinister,” and reminded us that the virus “can strike anyone at any time.”

To be sure, COVID-19 is serious. We all know someone who has died or been hospitalized due to the virus. For older people and for people with pre-existing conditions in particular, the coronavirus is a serious threat. We all have loved ones who fall in these categories.

But if the goal is to help the state of North Carolina get through this pandemic as safely as possible, Gov. Cooper’s fear-mongering rhetoric is having the opposite effect.

When everything is a crisis, nothing is. North Carolinians have grown numb to the ongoing state of emergency, and the Governor’s handling of it is a big reason why.

Emergencies must be temporary, and you can’t expect people to stay scared forever. A long-term problem needs a long-term strategy.

In attempting to keep North Carolina in a state of fear, Gov. Cooper has squandered his credibility — something he would desperately need should things really take a turn for the worse.

The problems with fear 

Fear can be a powerful motivator in the short-term. It’s a primal emotional response that can spur quick and radical action. But the well of fear quickly runs dry, even if the threat of danger is still present. Fear will only get you a mile into the race. It won’t finish a marathon. Once the adrenaline wears off, you need something else to create long-term change.

Americans don’t like being afraid. We don’t like to hunker down; we’d much rather be out doing something to help. 

President George W. Bush tapped into this when he told a grieving nation on the evening of September 11 that “[t]hese acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.”

Tell Americans we should fear something and a large percentage will run right toward it out of sheer orneriness.

Ongoing change, lasting change, sustainable change takes a different type of motivation.

How other Governors talked about COVID this Thanksgiving

So how does a Governor convince a weary public to take COVID-19 with the appropriate seriousness? This Thanksgiving, they’ve taken a variety of approaches. None are perfect, but are worth a look.

Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota emphasized personal responsibility, calling on the people of her state to be smart and do the right things for themselves and their families. In an op-ed in the Rapid City Journal, she writes: 

“I’m going to continue to trust South Dakotans to make wise and well-informed decisions for themselves and their families. … This is a testament to the people of South Dakota – our greatest weapon against this common enemy.”

Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, the state with the lowest per-capita cases of COVID-19, couched things in terms of shared sacrifice. 

He writes on Thanksgiving

“From the very beginning, Vermonters have stepped up to face this battle with service and sacrifice, digging deep to maintain discipline as the crisis grinds on. Make no mistake: Your willingness to meet this challenge head on has helped make our response the best in the nation.”

Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, whose state has the highest rate of mask-wearing, struck a resigned and even cynical tone in his Thanksgiving briefing. Let’s get this over with, his message seemed to be, and the state rolled out an ad campaign centered around getting back to normal life

“We can’t afford to do Thanksgiving and the holidays the same way we’ve done it in years past. We’ll certainly get through this. … No one wants to be the one responsible for getting a family member sick.” 

Then there are Governors who are perhaps even more hyperbolic than Gov. Cooper.

Gov. Janet Mills of Maine has referred to COVID-19 as an “evil genie” and said:

“Returning to normal life sometime next year first requires us to survive the holidays this year.” 

What Cooper should do instead

I see an approach that melds these working in North Carolina. If Gov. Cooper would do these things, I’d expect him to garner a more productive response.

  • Inspire hope. Fear will work for a little while, but Americans will bear a great deal for the long term if they see hope on the horizon. Every dour note should be tempered with reasons for hope and optimism. 

  • Paint a vision of victory. If people feel they are working toward something specific, they’ll do what is necessary to achieve it. When things are open-ended and indefinite, action is difficult to sustain. Gov. Cooper should define what long-term success looks like and describe it in detail. Is it keeping hospital capacity available? Is it driving new cases to zero? 

  • Give us a quick win. Once we know the long-term vision, tell the people of North Carolina the short-term goals we can achieve on the way. Make the first one something we can do in a relatively short period of time. 

  • Be honest about the risk. At this point, we know a lot about who the virus is particularly dangerous to. Pretending that everybody is at equal risk erodes trust. This isn’t to say that some people are immune from harm, but being clear about risk factors is crucial.

  • Share the blame. To date, Gov. Cooper has taken all credit for successes in fighting COVID, and chalked up all the blame for rising case counts to people not following his orders. Leaders do the opposite, letting the people take the credit and shouldering blame themselves. Now that the election is over, this should be easier for the Governor. He must admit mistakes, accept blame and work to fix the problems. People will forgive and will work harder for somebody with humility.

  • Give us something to do. Americans like to help. When there’s a crisis, we want to jump in, come together and do what we can. That’s more difficult during a pandemic when we’re supposed to be staying apart. But there has to be something the people of North Carolina can be encouraged to actively do to help keep morale up.

  • Let the crisis subside. This should have been done long ago, but at some point, Gov. Cooper should take the stage at his press conference and declare the emergency to be over. That doesn’t mean everything goes back to normal, but North Carolinians can in good faith have a discussion about what changes are permanent and what we can live with. We can debate what’s non-negotiable and what we can bend on. We can come to an agreement on what are reasonable risks are what are reasonable precautions. And then we can move forward.

Emergencies can’t last forever. Neither can fear campaigns. It’s time to rebuild trust with the people of North Carolina before we need to draw from the well again. 

Quick Takes

N&O smears Chief Justice-elect Paul Newby as racist. In a Sunday hit piece, the newspaper analyzes the challenges Newby has filed to throw out certain ballots around the state and finds that black voters are disproportionately represented. This is fine and worthy of note, but the N&O takes things a step too far by lining up several “experts” to say that Newby must be targeting black North Carolinians. The reporters demonstrate no evidence to back up this assertion, and in fact, note in the story that black voters had their ballots rejected at a higher rate at the Board of Elections level. 

A better and more fair story would examine why absentee by mail ballots are being rejected and what human-centered design elements could be incorporated to help people meet all the legal requirements on turning in these ballots.

Democrat “rising stars” on very different trajectories. The biggest loser who actually won on election night? Attorney General Josh Stein. The first-term Democrat’s final margin of victory came in at less than 14,000 votes against Forsyth County DA Jim O’Neill. O’Neill is a strong candidate, but Stein is widely considered his party’s next gubernatorial candidate — so he has to be concerned about his squeaker of a win. 

On the other hand, N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson must feel a lot better about his statewide prospects after this year. Previously elected in deep blue districts, Jackson’s turf was re-drawn into a D+2 district this year and he faced an extremely strong Republican in Sonja Nichols. Still, Jackson romped by nearly 14 points. He clearly has a brand that resonates with moderate and swing voters and appears strongly positioned for a U.S. Senate run in 2022.

Is it time to get rid of the independently elected lieutenant governor? Unsurprisingly, this question is making the rounds now that Republican Mark Robinson has been elected to be North Carolina’s first black lieutenant governor. The N&O’s Ned Barnett calls for a governor-lieutenant governor ticket in a column this past week. 

The question is a worthy one, along with a wholesale re-thinking of the Council of State. Does it really make sense to have the heads of so many executive agencies independently elected? If the Council of State has so little advisory power, as we discovered during COVID, what’s the point of it at all? 

Now’s not the time to explore these questions. Coming so soon after election day, it feels like another example of the institutional left being willing to blow up the system if they don’t win. Even more baffling in Ned’s column is this line: 

“In the late 1980s, Democrats who controlled the legislature responded to the election of Republican Jim Gardner as lieutenant governor by transferring most of the office’s powers to the president pro tempore of the Senate. That was unfair then, but it looks fortunate now.”

Uh, what?

But the bigger problem is this: It’s sad that the media has already dismissed Robinson as not up to the task of governing before he even gets sworn in.

Worth noting

  • In a podcast interview with Tim Boyum this week, Paul Shumaker says he expects 10 or more candidates in the 2022 Senate primary on the Republican side.

  • Three state prisons have closed due to spikes of COVID-19, WBTV reports.

Memes of the week