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Opinion The latest GOP anti-mask lunacy is stirring a backlash. New polling reveals it.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (Marta Lavandier/AP)

The other day, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis likened mask and other health mandates to “medical authoritarianism.” The Republican added that we may be witnessing “the most significant threat to freedom in my lifetime, certainly since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Because DeSantis was speaking in the hermetically sealed-off information universe of Fox News, such drivel was certain to elicit approval. But outside of that universe — with DeSantis and Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott actively thwarting local officials from protecting their constituents with mask mandates — a backlash to these antics may be brewing.

A new Axios-Ipsos poll probes public sentiments on this in a novel way. It asks respondents about state laws that prohibit local officials from creating mask requirements. Both DeSantis and Abbott have sought to do this, albeit by executive order.

The result: 66 percent of Americans oppose such state laws, and only 33 percent support them. What’s more, the poll also finds that a whopping 77 percent oppose efforts to withhold funding from school districts and local governments that implement mask mandates.

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This fills in our understanding of public opinion. Polling has already shown that large majorities favor mask mandates when asked. This new data shows that equally large majorities oppose efforts by governors to actively prevent local officials from implementing such measures.

Some parents worry Florida schools aren't doing enough to protect their kids from the coronavirus as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) doubles down on his mask mandate ban. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

“Americans think masks are useful and good in the fight against covid,” Chris Jackson, the head of public polling at Ipsos, tells me. The data, Jackson adds, indicates that majorities believe governors blocking mask mandates “are essentially taking away a useful tool for Americans to get back to their lives.”

“There is a strong predisposition in this country toward doing something proactive to stop the pandemic,” Jackson says.

These GOP governors keep telling us they are defending the liberty of Americans to live without health-care mandates. The argument is deranged nonsense: They selectively oppose such mandates in the case of covid-19, because the preoccupations of Donald Trump and his movement require it.

And by blocking local officials from implementing public health measures, they are impairing the ability of communities to act collectively, via their legitimately chosen leaders, in their own defense. (In numerous states, GOP laws have banned private businesses from imposing vaccine requirements and protecting their customers and the public health as they see fit.)

Fortunately, large majorities reject their thinking. Large majorities believe local officials should implement measures that put in place such collective self-defense efforts, and they see GOP governors thwarting this as the ones who are misusing their power.

To people like DeSantis and Abbott, of course, none of this matters. While they piously pretend to be defending the liberty of their constituents, they appear to be speaking primarily to very narrowly conceived national Republican primary electorates — as well as the Fox News audience — to nourish their own higher ambitions.

On this score, the new polling is instructive. Ipsos tells me that large majorities of non-college-educated Whites — a demographic that is supposed to thrill to Trumpian cultural warmongering — oppose gubernatorial prohibitions against local mask mandates and the cutting of school funding as retaliation. Those numbers are 58 percent and 75 percent respectively.

Meanwhile, other polling shows the potential for backlash to these GOP antics. Ron Brownstein obtained data from numerous pollsters and found that sizable majorities of vaccinated Americans want tougher requirements imposed on those who refuse to get vaccinated.

That polling, Brownstein reports, also finds that large majorities of vaccinated Republicans also hold the unvaccinated responsible for the recent surge in covid cases and believe the delta variant will lead to a worsening of the pandemic.

Democrats should do more to speak to this relatively silent majority of Americans. This is a group loosely composed of people who believe, variously, that local officials should use their power to help communities collectively defend themselves against a highly contagious disease, that those who refuse vaccines are putting the rest of us in peril, and that GOP governors thwarting collective action, far from being heroic freedom warriors, are misusing their official powers.

Speaking more directly to this silent majority’s political aspirations and values would highlight the broader ongoing radicalization of the Republican Party and the massive public dangers it poses. It might potentially mobilize these relatively less noisy constituencies, putting more pressure on GOP governors and others who are actively blocking progress.

“People who oppose masks and vaccines are the loudest and most organized,” Jackson of Ipsos told me. “But they’re not the majority. The real question becomes, do people on the pro-mask, pro-vaccine side focus their anger to the point that it actually creates a backlash?”

Democrats should do all they can to answer that question in the affirmative — not just for the good of their party, but for the good of the country.

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