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Against Stolen-Base Politics
COVID isn't suddenly going to make your longstanding agenda popular. You can't skip persuasion, and voters will punish you if you try.
Right after we launched this newsletter, I wrote about Democrats’ misguided idea that they can win by political contests through disqualification. This was roughly the Terry McAuliffe campaign approach: Republicans are so terrible, because Trump Trump Trump, they’re so racist, they’re all Trump in disguise, you have to vote for us. Democrats who favor these arguments have a related disdain for the idea of moderating and compromising to expand the electoral coalition: Why should we have to do that? The other option is so bad, voters have no moral or practical choice besides us, and we can do what we want.
It turns out, voters are not as trapped as you thought.
This is just one manifestation of a broader political fallacy: the search for One Weird Trick that will get the public to adopt your agenda and move the country right or left, for lack of any better options, even if the public’s ideology is unchanged.
Conservatives most often indulge this idea with regard to old-age entitlement cuts: They think we have made too large a commitment to support the elderly through Social Security and Medicare, but cutting those programs is unpopular, so they hope they can use either an economic force (like government debt interest costs) or a political force (like a debt ceiling fight) to bring those cuts into existence without Republicans having to be their sole author, and without the public having to be convinced to favor the cuts.
Of course, this hasn’t worked, and won’t work, because the policy is so unpopular. But it won’t stop them from trying again once interest rates are higher and deficit politics are more compelling again.
In the last two years, progressives have picked up a new favored hand-forcing mechanism of their own: COVID. The pandemic didn’t change the worldview of progressives who have long wanted our society to be less individualistic and more built around ideas of mutual obligation. But they believe it could or should made it possible to change policy to move into line with their pre-existing worldview.
You can see this in Sam Adler-Bell’s New York magazine feature about why David Leonhardt drives certain progressives crazy with his COVID analyses that give ammunition to people arguing — especially within the Democratic Party coalition — for a normalization of public policies and behaviors.1 Leonhardt and his critics have factual disagreements about the pandemic. But Adler-Bell is admirably open about there being a normative disagreement at the core of the dispute.
The arguments between the COVID hawks and doves, for lack of a better term, “are as much about how we should regard all this suffering as they are about how we may prevent it,” Adler-Bell says. That is, it’s a dispute of values — and not a dispute that arose with the pandemic itself.
The Atlantic’s Ed Yong, a favorite journalist of the COVID-forever crowd, is even more explicit about how the pandemic should have been used as a force to bring about previously-desired social change. He told Adler-Bell: “I was writing as early as spring of 2020 that this is, in many ways, an opportunity to take stock of societal problems that have been allowed to go unaddressed for too long… And I think the risk has always been in pushing back toward that normal, we lose that chance to fashion a better normal.”
If this is what progressives seriously thought was going on with pandemic politics, they badly misunderstood how they were interfacing with the public — and relatedly, while Leonhardt is influential, they are greatly overestimating how much effect he is having personally.
There are reasons that temporariness was always, always a key part of the messaging about COVID response. One is that our responses were actually expected to be temporary, even by their authors and proponents: We were in an acute pandemic emergency, and pandemic emergencies eventually wane, either on their own or through interventions like vaccines, at which point you go back to normal. The other is that temporariness was always key to public buy-in: People were willing to make big changes to the way they lived for a time, but their appetite for doing it forever was low.
At no point, anywhere along the line, was there significant buy-in for the idea that we were going to permanently change the social contract. And that’s why the pro-mitigation arguments, for the year-plus since the vaccines started rolling out, have continued to emphasize temporariness: Non-pharmaceutical interventions until everyone can get a vaccine, until the Delta wave ends, until the Omicron wave ends, until Paxlovid is more widely available, until the daily death rate is lower, and so on.
Even the justifications that one might reasonably see as substantively indefinite are still officially temporary: Things like saying we need restrictions until the immunocompromised are better protected, or until we know more about Long COVID, whatever “more” means. Writers like Leonhardt are influencing how members of the public (and perhaps more importantly, public officials in the Democratic Party) think about when it’s time for back to normal, but back to normal has always been the end state aim of the public, which is why the COVID hawks’ arguments have been consistently premised idea that it would happen eventually, just not now.
I would also note there’s better reason to think the events of the pandemic have undermined willingness to adopt a more communitarian social contract than enhanced it.
We are a free society that values individual choice and is wary of new restrictions on how we live our lives. If you want the public to think we should, on an ongoing basis, more greatly empower public health officials to impose more restrictions as necessary, it’s important that those restrictions be seen as reasonable, effective, and fair.
Instead, they have often been arbitrary and capricious: Masks, but they don’t have to be any good. Or, masks at the host stand, but not at your table. Or, masks on children outdoors at recess, but not in bars. Or, masks, but not on the faces of public officials ordering that they be worn. Or, stay home, unless you’re protesting for a cause we agree with. These inconsistencies have made a farce of the idea that the rules are written and enforced by people “following the science.”
And there’s a reason these rules have so often been farcical. To steal a phrase from Adler-Bell, the fights over COVID rules have often been more about how we should regard COVID than how we should prevent it.
In the last two years, I have been to exactly one non-medical establishment that enforced any sort of rule about mask quality: Last October’s Milken Global Conference, where staff were posted at the doors of the Beverly Hilton to hand out KN95 masks, and staff inside studiously ensured the attendees actually wore them. That’s what a regime where people are serious about masks as a prevention measure looks like.
But as a symbol of how we regard COVID, any mask will do. A mask is like a souped-up version of an NPR tote. The tote says “I care about nonprofit media and disposable plastics”; the mask says “I care about COVID, unlike those Trumpers.” And as with progressives’ efforts to enforce totes on everyone through plastic bag bans (often increasing plastic consumption, due to all the heavy-duty “reusable” bags that end up in the trash) they have used COVID policy to force the broader public into their folkways.
But you shouldn’t confuse getting the public to adopt your behaviors with getting them to adopt your values.
There’s a reason the argument for an indefinite emergency footing has taken on an increasingly desperate tone in recent weeks, even as the objective pandemic conditions have rapidly improved: The better arguments for temporary continuation of mitigation policies are falling away, and the ones that remain are less convincing. And for all the claims that the public wants transformative change or persistent emergency (or even wants a significantly longer continuation of the tighter rules that were imposed as the Omicron wave hit) there’s no sign the politicians taking the back-to-normal approach are paying any political penalty. That, not anything Leonhardt has written, is why Democratic governors are stampeding to copy them.
So Yong has resorted to arguing people trying to do self-interested cost-benefit analysis are doing it wrong; that they’re underestimating how likely they are to benefit in the future from a society that imposes a lot more restriction in the name of a newly protective regime for the immunocompromised. For all the wishing that COVID could have been a turning point in our social values, his argument still accepts the premise that we will make individualistic policy decisions rather than communitarian ones. He’s also wrong because he (like so many progressive commentators on COVID over the last two years) undersells how disruptive all the disruption has been to the disrupted.
And that’s what’s so crazy about the idea of COVID as emergency catalyst for permanent social change: The step where the public was supposed to be convinced of the need for “big structural change” was skipped. Instead, progressives have tried to steal a base through the mechanisms of the bureaucracy — a “trust the experts” politics that is supposed to take decision-making out of the hands of voters and give it to a class of subject-matter experts who just happen to have disproportionately left-wing politics.2
That can work for a time, while we’re in an acute emergency, and people can’t get by without the experts. It can work longer in a place like Los Angeles, where the expert bureaucrats rule, than it can in a democracy like New York City. But in the long run, the public’s values assert themselves. You cannot skip steps and assume everyone is with your agenda because of a shared experience. And if you try to impose it anyway, you’ll eventually have to stop, or (like Democrats in Virginia) you’ll be voted out and replaced by someone who will.
I talked with David Leonhardt about this on the Very Serious podcast earlier this month; you can listen to that episode here.
You see this also in schools, with appeals to the expertise of graduates of left-wing education schools as the factor that is supposed to determine what we even want children to learn in school.