The pandemic politics of existential anxiety: Between steadfast resistance and flexible resilience

DOI10.1177/01925121211002098
Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
https://doi.org/10.1177/01925121211002098
International Political Science Review
2021, Vol. 42(3) 350 –366
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/01925121211002098
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The pandemic politics of
existential anxiety: Between
steadfast resistance and
flexible resilience
Uriel Abulof , Shirley Le Penne
and Bonan Pu
Cornell University, USA
Abstract
We all know we will die, but not when and how. Can private death awareness become public, and
what happens when it does? This mixed-method research on the Covid-19 crisis reveals how pandemic
politics cultivates and uses mass existential anxiety. Analyzing global discourse across vast corpora, we
reveal an exceptional rise in global ‘mortality salience’ (awareness of death), and trace the socio-political
dynamics feeding it. Comparing governmental pandemic policies worldwide, we introduce a novel model
discerning ‘mortality mitigation’ (coping mechanisms) on a scale from steadfast resistance (‘oak’) to
flexible resilience (‘reed’). We find that political trust, high median age, and social anxiety predict a
reedy approach; and that the oak, typically pushing for stricter measures, better mitigates mortality.
Stringency itself, however, hardly affects Covid-related cases/deaths. We enrich our model with brief
illustrations from five countries: China and Israel (both oaks), Sweden and Germany (reeds) and the USA
(an oak–reed hybrid).
Keywords
Pandemic politics, Covid-19, crisis, coping mechanisms, terror management theory, resilience, death,
mortality, mortality salience, existential anxiety, mortality mitigation, China, Germany, Israel, Sweden,
USA
‘The slightest breeze that ruffles the surface of the water makes you bow your heads, while I, the mighty
Oak, stand upright and firm before the howling tempest.’
Aesop, 1919, ‘The Oak and the Reed’
Corresponding author:
Uriel Abulof, School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs, Tel-Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978,
Israel. Department of Government, Cornell University, USA.
Emails: uriel@tau.ac.il; abulof@cornell.edu
1002098IPS0010.1177/01925121211002098International Political Science ReviewAbulof et al.
research-article2021
Special Issue: The Political Ramifications of COVID 19
Abulof et al. 351
Death is not a disease but the natural departure from life. Yet we often deny this basic fact, dodg-
ing mortality, not least through politics, with far-reaching consequences. During the Covid-19
crisis, we argue, global politics met death and then went on denying it. Using quantitative and
qualitative analyses of public discourses and governmental policies, we offer a novel theoretical
model and shed new empirical light on the workings of pandemic politics. To make our case, we
investigate mortality salience (awareness of death) as well as mortality mitigation (coping mecha-
nisms with death awareness), both theoretically and empirically.
Analyzing mortality salience, we evince, in the article’s first section, the relevance of Terror
Management Theory (TMT) to Covid-19. TMT submits that the greater one’s sense of death,
the more one seeks self-esteem, holding fast to a cultural group (Burke et al., 2010; Harvell
and Nisbett, 2016; Schmeichel et al., 2009; Solomon et al., 2015; Vergani et al., 2019). We
argue that the Covid-19 pandemic effectively runs a real-life TMT experiment on a global
scale. Employing corpus linguistics for concepts analysis (Abulof, 2015b), we decode global
discourses across vast corpora, and demonstrate a drastic rise in mortality salience on a soci-
etal level, worldwide.
The article’s second section offers an explanation. Comparing Covid-19 to other modern
plagues through pandemic data, and drawing on contemporary public opinion polls and discourse
analysis, we submit that the severity of Covid-19 enabled, not alone engendered, the subsequent,
global mortality salience. Pandemic politics, leveraging media and academia, both foregrounded
death and framed it as fearful, cultivating mass existential anxiety and polarizing publics.
Downplaying the viral threat became an overt mode of death denial; fearmongering, its covert
mode: stressing the deadliness of the disease while sidestepping the inevitability of death itself.
Analyzing mortality mitigation, the article’s third section starts by outlining a novel model for
comparing state reactions to acute crises. Our model draws on insights from various psychological
theories that decipher how people handle stress and death awareness (Crust and Clough, 2005;
Maddi, 2013; Wade-Benzoni, 2002). We submit that facing a (mortal) crisis, an agent may turn
anywhere between two ideal-type dispositions: steadfast resistance and flexible resilience.
Metaphorically, drawing on Aesop’s fable, to weather a storm, one may turn into an ‘oak’ or ‘reed,’
and typically somewhere in between.
Statistically decoding governmental pandemic policies worldwide, via a newly compiled data-
set, we show that the ‘oakier’ a country is, the stricter its policies; that political trust, high median
age, and social anxiety predict a ‘reedy’ approach; and that the oak is somewhat better, on a global
average, in mitigating mortality although governmental stringency itself hardly affects Covid-
related cases/deaths. Qualitatively, we briefly illustrate our arguments through five cases: China
and Israel (two of the clearest oaks), Sweden and Germany (reeds), and the USA—an oak–reed
hybrid, its leader a clear oak, its myriad policies, typically reed.
To wit, we do not aim to morally judge pandemic politics. Emphasizing death and dread has
upsides and downsides, as do both the reed and the oak. Rather, our goal is to analyze the pandemic
politics of existential anxiety—from mortality salience to mortality mitigation—exploring its intri-
cacies and impacts.
Covid-19: the memento mori of global politics
We are all bound to die—and know it. All life will eventually end, but only humans know it, from
early on. For Heidegger et al. (2010), death thus defines human existence—being human depends
on thinking about death. But how do we cope with that awareness, with the inevitability of death?
For Ernest Becker (1973), the answer is ‘denial.’ Rather than embrace our mortality, we spend our
lives running away from it, constructively or destructively (cf. Tradii and Robert, 2019).

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