Ideologues versus pragmatists in the fight against COVID-19

Ideologues versus pragmatists in the fight against COVID-19
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Most Americans are pragmatists. Pragmatists believe that whatever works is right. In the debate over the coronavirus pandemic, pragmatists are willing to accept shutdowns, social distancing and huge new government spending because experts tell them those policies are likely to resolve the public health crisis. 

Ideologues believe that if something is wrong it can’t possibly work, even if it does work. Conservative ideologues argue that big government policies like bailouts and mandated social distancing can’t possibly work because they give government too much power. And that’s always wrong.

Throughout American history, every expansion of government power has generated an ideological backlash. In a 2009 television interview, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Obamas' first White House dog, Bo, dies Census results show White House doubling down on failure MORE noted that “whenever a president tries to bring about significant changes, particularly during times of economic unease, then there is a certain segment of the population that gets very riled up.  FDR was called a socialist and a communist.”


Obamacare created a right-wing backlash when it was debated in 2009 and passed in 2010. Tea party protesters saw themselves as patriots denouncing tyrannical government in the spirit of the American Revolution (hence the name, “tea party”). After health care reform passed, an anti-Obamacare activist told a tea party rally in Iowa, “Every single person’s body in the whole country belongs to the government now.”

Obamacare has finally become popular because it is working. But it’s a big government program, so Republicans have never stopped trying to bring it down. They nearly succeeded in 2017, when repeal failed by one vote in the Senate — John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds DOJ: Arizona recount could violate civil rights laws Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE’s dramatic final Senate vote.

The current wave of anti-shutdown protests originated with pro-gun activists. What does the shutdown have to do with gun rights? When I speak overseas, I find that foreigners can’t understand why Americans are so attached to their guns. I explain that many gun rights supporters see guns as their ultimate defense against abusive government. The question came up when I appeared on an Australian television show called “Planet America,” a title that captures the alien nature of U.S. politics to non-Americans. I explained that guns represent individual freedom — something Americans value more than any other people in the world. If you are forced to give up your gun, you become less free.

I have been to gun shows in the U.S. and talked to gun owners. They defend gun ownership as the ultimate guarantee of freedom. Some have told me: “If Jews in Europe had had guns, there would have been no Holocaust,” and “If blacks in the South had had guns, there would have been no slavery.” That, I explained to my Australian hosts, is a unique American mentality.

It applies to the shutdown just as it applies to gun rights. A leader of “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine” told his followers that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers was on a “power trip . . . forcing us to hand over our freedoms and our livelihood!” Many protesters at anti-shutdown rallies wave the Gadsden flag, the banner first used in the American Revolution. It shows a rattlesnake coiled to strike, over the threat, “Don’t Tread on Me.”


“The epidemic is being used as an excuse to put restrictions on people,” a conservative activist complained: “We’re not a police state, and this should be a personal choice.’’ A woman protesting outside the Colorado state capitol complained to the Denver Post, “Pot shops are open, abortion clinics are open and my church is closed.”

When the shutdown forced Tesla to stop production of its latest vehicle, the company’s founder, Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskOn The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain Musk warns on cryptocurrency surge: 'Invest with caution!' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE, ranted to investors that the government was "forcibly imprisoning people" in their homes "against their constitutional rights." He added, "This is fascist. This is not democratic. This is not freedom. It’s not why people came to America." (Musk came from South Africa.)

In a crisis, Americans are willing to support greater government power if it promises to resolve the crisis. As a result, support for the protests is surprisingly limited. In a Yahoo News-YouGov poll, only 22 percent of Americans said they support the protests. Even Republicans opposed the protests, 47 to 36 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the public endorsed the view that the stay-at-home orders are “the only way to stop the spread” of the disease.

Many epidemiologists believe that the only way to end the pandemic is to do what was done in South Korea and other countries — implement a regime of testing to identify people who have been infected, track down everyone they have been in contact with and put all those people in quarantine for two weeks. That won’t be easy to do in the U.S. It’s likely to be a whole lot more intrusive than the current shutdown. And it’s likely to generate a larger political backlash that won’t be so easy to dismiss.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).