War Metaphors (What Are They Good For?): Militarized Rhetoric and Attitudes Toward Essential Workers During the Covid-19 Pandemic

AuthorJessica D. Blankshain,David M. Glick,Danielle L. Lupton
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2023, Vol. 51(2) 161173
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221125713
War Metaphors (What Are They Good For?):
Militarized Rhetoric and Attitudes Toward
Essential Workers During the Covid-19
Jessica D. Blankshain
, David M. Glick
, and Danielle L. Lupton
During the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders and society at large invoked militarized rhetoric and war metaphors to elevate
essential workers and inspire collective action. Using a survey experiment we investigate whether this type of framing affects
public views about (1) individual responsibilities, (2) targeted polices, and (3) perceptions of those called heroes and soldiers.
We f‌ind that the war metaphor has minimal effects on public attitudes toward policies and individual actions in res ponse to the
pandemic. Framing the response in militaristic terms does, however, appear to affect perceptions of essential workers. Counter
to our hypotheses, subjects who saw essential workers called heroes or soldiers viewed them as more motivated by com-
pensation rather than service, and expressed less respect for them, than respondents in the control. These f‌indings, including
the nulls, make important contributions to our understanding of the limits of framing effects in a polarized context.
pandemic, public opinion, rhetoric, polarization
Two very different American presidents seemed to agree on one
thingthe United States has been at war with the novel co-
ronavirus. In March 2020, Donald Trump touted himself as a
wartime president,calling Covid-19 the invisible enemy
(Bennett & Berenson, 2020;Elving, 2020). In April 2020, the
U.S. Surgeon General compared the developing pandemic to
Pearl Harbor and 9/11 (Noack et al., 2020). The Biden ad-
ministration employed similar rhetoric in early 2021, arguing the
United States is at war with this virus(Miller, 2021). Such
rhetoric was not limited to the U.S. Indeed, the global public
discourse has been saturated with the war metaphor. In March
2020, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros
Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual summit: We ar e at w ar
with a virus that threatens to tear us apart.He further asked
world leaders to Fight hard. Fight like hell. Fight like your lives
depend on itbecause they do(Chappell, 2020). More re-
cently, a July 2021 internal CDC document noted that the war
has changedwith the rise of the new delta variant (Yasmeen
Abutaleb et al., 2021). As the Covid-19 death toll rose, the
pandemics impact was often measured against the casualty
counts of various wars (Hollingsworth & Webber, 2021).
Compared to other potential frames, politicians, the media, and
even the public have overwhelming employed the war metaphor
to understand and discuss the Covid-19 pandemic (Wicke &
Bolognesi, 2020).
The war metaphor has also been extended to those bearing
the brunt of the pandemic response. President Trump de-
scribed healthcare workers running into death just like
soldiers run into bullets in a true sense…” (Salles & Gold,
2020). Essential workers have been referred to as heroes,
warriors, or soldiers on the front lines (Meet the Heroes of the
Front Lines, 2021). Legislators have proposed bills whose
titles reinforce this framing, such as Senator Mitt Romneys
Patriot Paylegislation (Romney, 2020) or the HEROES
Act, introduced by House Democrats in May 2020. Scholars
have even suggested the G.I. Bill and other veteransbenef‌it
programs as models for how to care for Covid-19 frontline
workers (Grossman & McEnaney, 2020).
This widespread use of the war metaphor suggests a
common belief that militarized rhetoric is a useful way to
National Security Affairs, US Naval War College, Newport, RI, USA
Boston University, Boston, MA, USA
Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, USA
Authors are listed in alphabetical order.
Corresponding Author:
Jessica D. Blankshain, US Naval War College 686 Cushing Rd, ATTN:
National Security Affairs, Newport, RI 02841, USA.
Email: jessica.blankshain@usnwc.edu

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