U.S. Body Politic Mounts Immune Defense

The pandemic coincided with an assault on democracy. The defenses are similar.

Posted Jan 21, 2021

The assault of a pandemic has been accompanied by an assault on democracy and the defenses are similar.

At the peak of a pandemic, we are acutely aware of the body's immune response to disease. Something similar is occurring in the political response to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Some of the responses to an attempted coup are similar to the immune system's response to a pathogen.

The immune system has an inherited, or primary, response to disease that involves physical barriers, like skin, in addition to specialized defensive dells such as macrophages and neutrophils.

The immune system also has an adaptive response in which the immune system acquires a capacity to recognize pathogens, and to inactivate them.

How a State Defends Itself Against Inside Attacks

Pathogens are not necessarily from outside the body. They sometimes attack from within. This is true of autoimmune diseases, for example, where the body mounts an immune response against its own tissues.

The U.S. insurrection was clearly of this type. The conflict has been brewing for years in efforts to deceive the public through misinformation on social media. Before the 2020 election, the sitting president said that he would not accept electoral defeat.

This was the culmination of a campaign of deception in which the president insisted that the election had been “stolen.” Inciting a mob to attack the Capitol as lawmakers formalized Biden's electoral victory was more of the same.

Most contemporary insurrections come from within the country. The inherited response of a state to insurrection comes in the form of laws and institutions that set the rules of a democracy.

This defense was tested repeatedly in numerous unfounded challenges to the legitimacy of election results. The Secretaries of State of all 50 states came through with flying colors as did each of the judicial branches, from the Supreme Court down, in which these baseless claims of fraud were adjudicated.

The shakiest line of defense turned out to be the Congress itself, where large numbers of conservative lawmakers voted to reject electors under threat of losing their seats through the actions of a vengeful party leader.

When all else fails, the state uses its military power to protect its institutions, as reflected in the 25,000 troops defending the Capitol during the inauguration in addition to military protection of all state capitols.

While U.S. democracy survived the attempt to pursue an authoritarian state, the enemy remains within, like an invading pathogen and elements of the government are mounting an adaptive (i.e., learning-based) response in which they seek to identify and neutralize the enemy within the body politic.

The Adaptive Response

Every new threat to a state is different from previous ones so that all arms of government, including the judicial system, the legislature, and the executive must learn new ways of countering it.

This response involves collecting information about the enemy. The immune system is similar and macrophages recognize new pathogens using pattern recognition proteins. This recognition process facilitates the entry of defensive neutrophils to infected tissues.

The Trump-led assault on democracy began, as other totalitarian efforts have, with a propaganda campaign that sought to divide the nation and create political and racial divisions, turning political opponents into the enemy. This campaign ultimately brought the absurd extreme of conspiracy theories of the QAnon type.

The radicalization campaign led directly to the Capitol insurrection and was mainly fought via social media where all manner of antisocials could wallow in a community based on hate-filled falsehoods spurred on by the president.

The temperature of these hate-based rants was reduced by social media companies who de-platformed Trump and others. This result is the first sign of a functioning defense of the body politic even if it came from companies rather than Congress. 

Democracy may have won this battle but we can expect a long war in which a large minority of the population has been radicalized through a diet of internet lies. The enemy is within the body politic but the adaptive response has also begun.