Conservatives are entitled to argue that public health experts are too cautious. They’re also entitled to wax indignant at the inconsistency of the responses from the liberal establishment. Left America once again got out over its skis, and politicized what ought to be a purely prudential question. It deserves to writhe a bit.
But the conservative movement doesn’t deserve what this kind of discourse is doing. Because arguments and indignation are starting to define the limits of conservative ideas — and defiant gestures are increasingly what the party has in place of policy.
There are legitimate arguments about where and when to open up now that vaccination is helping us protect the vulnerable. I’d prefer it if Texas and Mississippi — and Connecticut — had stayed closed a little longer, so that the vaccination campaign has a chance to really hammer transmission into submission before summer (hopefully) finishes the job. But I do not own a small business that’s suffering, and many of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) constituents do, and I’m willing to listen respectfully to arguments from the other side.
And then there are the masks.
Sure, there are questions about just how well mask mandates work, especially considering most masks are worn under “typical use” conditions rather than in laboratory tests. Even so, the benefit is unlikely to be zero, the laws of physics being what they are. And if you want to throw all your businesses open, a mask mandate is about the cheapest way to minimize the associated health costs. On the margin, masks could even help bring some of the more anxious folks back into shopping malls and theaters, both by reducing transmission and by reassuring them that public spaces are safe. So why the rush to throw them off?
But, of course, masks aren’t just a public health tool anymore; they’re a political symbol. And on the right, symbolic gestures are becoming the dominant form of political expression.
Have you seen the Republican messaging blitz about the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion stimulus package that bails out bankrupt union pension funds, offers blue states a federal piggy bank to help balance their budgets, subsidizes family planning services and rapid transit, and gives $128 billion to schools that mostly won’t spend the money by fall?
Of course, you haven’t, though congressional Republicans have been fitfully complaining about these things during debate. They seem to have forgotten, however, how to make these real, substantive questions into a matter of national contention. They seem to have forgotten, in fact, how to think about real, substantive questions.
Complain all you want that the covid-19 relief bill has been packed with all sorts of unrelated stuff from the Democratic wish list — at least the Democrats have a wish list. What’s the Republican equivalent? Often it seems to be literally a bunch of wishes — that the media wouldn’t be so liberal or so mean, that corporations wouldn’t go Full Woke in their diversity trainings, that social media platforms would stop wielding the ban-hammer so enthusiastically against conservatives. The closest thing this has produced to a real, live governing agenda is “Repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” which wouldn’t really fix the problems with social media that Republicans want to address and might do a bunch of things they don’t want, and at any rate is not, by itself, enough to run a country.
But I can’t entirely blame them, because this is how the party’s activists and even its intellectuals are thinking. As I wrote recently, I’ve been spending some time on Clubhouse, a new audio app that has attracted a lot of think-tank and political folks. No matter what the ostensible topic, the conversations most conservatives are having there almost always seem to end up in complaints about wokeism and cancel culture.
Heck, I share many of their complaints, and their fears about where all this is heading. I talk about it a lot, too. But that can’t be all we talk about. There’s a lot of important stuff going on in the world, and I’m worried we’re missing it by becoming literally reactionary — not so much for anything as against whatever the left is doing. A once-proud movement risks turning into one perpetual, primal scream: “I’m not gonna, and you can’t make me.”
That is not a movement; it is a second adolescence. And whatever the merits of masks or reopening, that reflexively oppositional impulse is unhealthy — for conservatives, and for America.