And it’s killing us. Not just in our ability to solve problems and have a political system that functions with any degree of order, but in some cases literally.
A lot of this (but by no means all) has to do with the covid-19 pandemic, which grows more politicized all the time. That hampers not only our ability to defeat covid and get back to normal life but the chances that we’ll be able to adequately deal with any future public health crisis — or frankly, any challenge demanding a collective response.
The Post reports that public health officials are confronting a new fear: that the Republican campaign against covid vaccine mandates — whether for health care workers, government employees, attendees at live entertainment events or anyone else who might put others at risk — will soon become a revolt against all vaccine mandates, of the kind we’ve had for decades in schools, the military and many other settings.
The GOP leaders working to stir up anger against covid vaccine mandates already see where it’s heading. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who tweeted an all-caps “NO VACCINE MANDATES,” refused to answer when asked if he opposes vaccine mandates in public schools against diseases such as measles and mumps — mandates that only a nonideological fringe questioned before now. It isn’t hard to figure out that he doesn’t want to say something his supporters might find insufficiently militant.
Does anyone think that those now disrupting school board meetings and threatening officials won’t be protesting the requirement that their kids get the standard battery of vaccines before starting school? The same tendencies that made them susceptible to anti-covid-vaccine hucksters — distrust of expertise, thirst for independence, contempt for concern about their fellow citizens, media pushing them toward conspiracy theories — will make them more likely to freak out about their kid’s next MMR shot.
They haven’t done this until now because they hadn’t really thought about vaccines much, let alone incorporated opposition to vaccines into their political identity. Now they have, and we know what the result may be: outbreaks of diseases we thought we had largely defeated.
Those same people are tuning in to Fox News, where Tucker Carlson — America’s most popular cable news host — promotes quack cures and spreads misinformation about vaccines and defends people who fake vaccine cards to enter places where everyone is supposed to be kept safe by mutual vaccination.
That’s hardly the only kind of lawlessness those who fancy themselves the party of “law and order” promote. Healthy portions of the Republican electorate also feel that Jan. 6 — its effort to overturn a presidential election by mob violence — is something to be celebrated, or at least a reasonable response to what they supposedly thought was a stolen election.
And they think further violence might be necessary to achieve their goals. “The majority of the Republican base feels that Jan. 6 was justified,” one anonymous red-state member of Congress told Politico. “Every day, I hear the word ‘Civil War’ — every day.”
Those beliefs are fed by the endlessly repeated assertion that any election Republicans don’t win is fraudulent. Take California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a recall election Tuesday. This is one of the bluest states in the country — one Republicans themselves constantly hold up as an example of liberal political and social excess — and the leading Republican contender in the race has views that would seem a little extreme in Alabama. Yet GOP leaders and media figures are telling their supporters that the Democratic governor can’t possibly prevail fairly. Therefore, when he wins it will be proof the election was stolen.
If we can’t win, Republicans decide, at least let’s turn the election into a rage-fueled nightmare and fodder for more conspiracy theories.
The cynical elite Republicans who smile approvingly when they see deluded thugs yelling at their local city council over a mask mandate believe all this will redound to their benefit. They may be right, given their lack of a policy agenda. Chaos doesn’t help you achieve policy goals or solve problems, especially ones that require the public to consider its alternatives with some measure of sanity.
What chaos can do, however, is make it impossible for anyone to govern. And with Democrats in charge in Washington, that’s just what Republicans want.
There was a time when conservatism meant sobriety, consistency and caution, but those days are long gone. Now we are faced with Chaos Conservatism, a political style that threatens to poison our entire national life. The farther we’re pulled down its path, the harder it will be to return.