Overblown balloon story has lost steam

Media portrayal of incident masks real threats to US amid slew of socio-economic woes

The fanfare around the United States’ twists over a Chinese civilian airship is just what the doctor ordered for US politics.

After all, US President Joe Biden’s Republican detractors have been ridiculing him for quite some time. His predecessor and rival in the 2020 presidential election, former president Donald Trump, as well as others were exploiting his incoherent ramblings, which provided all the ammunition that conservatives needed to have a field day.

But, truth be told, this is what Republicans and Democrats have always done: grossly caricatured each other by name-calling and stigmatization. According to the Pew Research Center, many Republicans and Democrats associate negative characteristics with members of the other party — and positive traits with their own.

But the specific criticisms that Democrats and Republicans have of each other vary. The Democrats have the unfortunate stigma of being “doves”, a synonym for being “weak “and “soft on terror”. On the other hand, Republicans are derided as “hawks” and warmongers who want fewer taxes.

Facts mean little in this raw, unadulterated and juvenile contest to smear, since Democrats and Republicans alike justify US exceptionalism on their own terms. Still, perceptions matter.

The balloon, the White House argued, was part of a larger Chinese surveillance program, violating US sovereignty. The Chinese countered that the US was sensationalizing nothing more than a weather balloon.

The truth is not important to Washington politics, for a wonderful opportunity arose for the US to reclaim its global leadership — by shooting first, and asking questions later.

In this context of US culture wars, economic woes, societal fracturing and Biden’s dismal approval ratings, the mysterious balloon was a godsend. There is nothing like cold-hearted destruction to reaffirm caricatures of masculinity.

The international mainstream media twisted Biden’s balloon moment with gladiator-like heroism. Channel after channel ran the balloon escapade at the top of every hour. Others, not so amused, privately giggled at the buffoonery of making a mountain out of a molehill.

To be clear, some in Washington argued that it was not enough to shoot it down. China needed to be taught a lesson, they said, and the US must not back down. Biden was dutifully playing the role of the unapologetic, no-nonsense tough guy who was guarding fortress America and would call out China’s misdeeds.

Media coverage of the so-called Chinese “spy balloon” dwarfed that of the toxic spill from a train derailment in the US state of Ohio, the bombing of the Gaza Strip, and even the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. It was unbelievable.

Was it really that important? Apparently so, since Biden’s approval ratings ticked slightly upward after the dramatic downing of the Chinese balloon by a Sidewinder missile costing around $400,000.

Following that, there was a massive US campaign and outrage over Chinese balloons, with over 40 nations being briefed on US safety measures against such supposedly dangerous balloons. Another balloon soon appeared, over Canadian airspace, and then two more. Again, without hesitation, they were blasted out of the sky.

However, the mainstream media is fickle. There was no sensationalist outcry, no dramatic footage of the downing of the new balloons and no mass outrage. This balloon story lost steam.

Here is some advice to the American people: Your welfare is not threatened by a balloon. It is threatened by mass shootings and by a ruling class that denies access to healthcare and affordable housing.

You are also threatened by the transportation crisis across the country, unlivable wages, disenfranchisement of voting rights impacting people of color, and astronomical levels of violence against women and girls. Know your enemy.

The author is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Qatar University. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.