Few recent films encapsulate the propensity of America’s elites for moral panics as much as Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s satirical account of the discovery of a comet on a collision course with Earth. While humankind has the means to avert the disaster, it fails to do so due to a combination of feckless leadership, greed, and a refusal to listen to experts.
While few critics have followed the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday in comparing it to Dr. Strangelove and such classics, the movie hit a nerve among the cognoscenti. Although not without reservations about its execution, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis praises “the movie’s heartbreaking, unspeakable truth,” namely that “human narcissism and all that it has wrought, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall. In the end, McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it.”
Traditionally, moral panics referred to hysterias spreading uncontrollably throughout the hoi polloi after being blown out of proportion by irresponsible media actors—think violence and video games, child abductions, or satanism. Today’s moral panics also exaggerate the magnitude of problems that have befallen America and the world, while reducing them to simplistic stories of good and evil. Yet, unlike moral panics of the past, the ones of today are often forced on a reluctant public by activists and experts—as well as by filmmakers and film critics.
What is more, the unqualified embrace has become a mark of intellectual and moral sophistication. If you are not particularly outraged or terrified—over climate change, the anti-vaxxers, Trump, or race relations in America—you are likely to be a part of the problem. Unlike blue-check Twitter, the populace is often unconvinced. In a recent Axios poll, both Covid-19 and Trump topped the list of subjects Americans didn’t want to hear about in 2022.
McKay’s film alludes to climate change, which is indeed seen as a serious problem by a growing portion of the world’s population. Yet, a rising concern about climate change does not equate to the doomsday predictions of humankind’s “future being totally destroyed,” as the Prince of Wales put it recently.
More often than not, the pandemic of Covid-19 gets the same treatment. In spite of the extraordinary success of vaccines and antiviral drugs, and in spite of the apparently mild nature of the virus’ latest variant, it is outré to be anything but very, very afraid. The Trump and post-Trump eras tend to be framed in similarly cataclysmic and Manichean terms, as an ongoing unravelling of America’s democracy driven by the Republican Party’s failure to do what is obviously right. Ditto for questions of race relations or policing, in which progress is being held back by a combination of malevolent vested interests, outright racism, and collective ignorance on the part of White America.
Such narratives share three main characteristics. First, they each display an unrealistic degree of catastrophism. While McKay’s fictional comet does end up destroying Earth, the prospect of climate change rendering the planet uninhabitable is wildly implausible. The death toll of Covid-19 is a human tragedy, but the virus does not rise to the level of an existential threat in countries with well-functioning healthcare systems and access to modern pharmaceuticals. If it did, then Sweden’s light-touch-to-no mitigation measures (that may well be seen as a failure on their own terms) would have far more severe consequences. Sweden’s life expectancy, meanwhile, has increased by two months between 2019 and 2021.
Similarly, one can be dismayed by the current state of the Republican Party without also seeing the United States on the verge of an anti-democratic, neo-fascist takeover. Likewise, it should be possible to acknowledge the lingering effects of past segregation and discrimination on social and economic outcomes today (reflected in property values or poor policing practices, for instance) without resorting to the preposterous notion that race relations in the United States are constantly worsening. Yet, pointing to signs of progress in these areas or suggesting that the magnitude of such problems is less than overwhelming is seen as a sign of cravenness or, at best, complacency.
The second shared characteristic of such narratives is that a preaching of the impending catastrophe and of the seemingly obvious steps needed to avert it raises one’s moral status relative both to the lukewarm, complacent general public and to the bad actors who bear direct responsibility for the crisis. Climate change is thus often depicted as a collective punishment for humankind’s greed, profit seeking, and elevation of economic growth above other social goals. COVID-19 outbreaks are just desserts for our failure to live up to the rigors of Science. Awareness of the severity of the problem, anger at those who stand in the way of the obvious expert solutions, and yelling at the public when we deserve it, as McKay does, are signals of moral sophistication and responsible citizenship.
Thirdly, this view of the world not only requires deference to experts but also admits little ambiguity, uncertainty, or trade-offs between different policies. The threat is always urgent and addressing it should trump all other considerations. Hesitation betrays cowardice, bad intentions, or ignorance. “It is hard to take knowing your research has not been acted on,” a prominent British climate scientist complains on Twitter—as if there were an obvious, one-on-one mapping between personal scientific findings and the complex host of policies that could be deployed to reduce carbon emissions or mitigate effects of climate change.
It rarely occurs to the adherents of the McKay worldview that real-world crises can be nebulous affairs and may lack “solutions” in the conventional sense. Adverse circumstances often linger on, no matter what policymakers do. The novel coronavirus is likely to continue to stay with us, mutate, and reinfect human populations with varying degrees of virulence for years to come. Similarly, climate change is not a problem to be “fixed” but a condition to be managed—locally, nationally, and internationally. Even the embrace of Trumpist pugilism by many voters on the Right is not some one-off error to be corrected by clever policies against misinformation on social media, or by overhauling America’s political system. Instead, it is a background condition that has to be accepted at its face value by both Democrats and Republicans, even if it means that our country’s political system delivers policies that will seem subpar to most experts. And, almost by definition, racially driven injustices of the past will continue to cast a shadow on the present. The relevant question is how such legacies can be handled constructively, instead of sloganeering and individual therapy.
There is no question that the right has trafficked in its fair share of moral panics, too. Most recently, for example, a number of prominent right-wing figures have promoted the disgraceful and ludicrous notion that the 2020 election was illegitimate—an idea that seems to have been embraced by a disturbingly high share of the Republican base.
Yet, it is not bothsidesism to point out that moral panics are unhelpful, regardless of whom they afflict. For one, if they become the main frame of reference through which real-world events are understood, they lead to a political maximalism that is both hard to reconcile with life in a diverse and pluralistic polity and bound to be a constant source of frustration and disappointment for those who adopt it. Few policy problems have obvious solutions that all people of goodwill can easily agree on. If every problem is painted as existential, however, then the democratic back and forth, compromises, ambiguity, and the occasional kicking of the can down the road are not merely unsatisfactory—they are seen as revealing the inner rot and inadequacy of America’s political institutions.
The alternative, of course, is to reject catastrophism, from McKay-style climate hysteria to delusions about Flight 93 elections. All things considered, American political institutions, democratic capitalism, the environment, or Western alliances are not on the verge of some cataclysmic breakdown justifying the alarmism that permeates contemporary debates.
True, none of those institutions is perfect. They provide no guarantees of constant progress; perpetual prosperity, peace, and friendship between peoples; wise political leadership; or clever solutions for wicked problems. Judged by any reasonable historic standard, however, they can also be viewed as miracles that have delivered better—including on all of those fronts—than the conceivable alternatives.
The prospect of such institutions delivering again, and better, in the future would be greatly enhanced if, in 2022, our intellectual and political class chilled for a moment instead of whipping itself into a frenzy over the latest looming ruination.
Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
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