They’re all afraid of their base. That’s the central fact of American political life now, that leaders of all sorts aren’t leading their people but are terrified of getting crosswise with them. They’re afraid of their own fans. This is true of everyone from cable anchors and hosts who know exactly who’s watching and what they want, to presidents of the United States.
Joe Biden is afraid of Joe Biden’s base, an extremely important part of which is the teachers unions. He’s afraid to insist publicly, with fervor and commitment, that they get vaccinated and open the schools. He speaks delicately of the unions when he speaks of them at all. It’s clear who’s in charge, who’s going to whom hat in hand.
Donald Trump is afraid of the Trump base. His administration pushed, against the odds, to develop the Covid vaccines and bragged, rightly, at the sheer scientific feat of it. He received the vaccine as soon as he could, as did his family and advisers. But he hasn’t led a national charge to overcome vaccine hesitancy; he’s not out there beating the drum to get the jabs. His stray comments have been furtive and low-key. Some in his base resist the vaccine and are angry that they’re going to be pushed around about it. If he put his name behind a campaign to persuade them, they just might push back and say he finally gave in to the swamp. So he dummies up.
I think Gov. Ron DeSantis fears his base. He’s shown some guts in Florida the past eight months, pushing back against a kind of National Federal Behemoth Establishment Thoughtblob that was claiming too much power and influence. But now he is forbidding local governments and public schools from requiring masks if they think circumstances justify. This is not conservative but extreme.
Eighteen months into the pandemic people have mask fatigue. The subject has become so fraught you have to be either pro or anti, pick a side, no room for an approach that weighs circumstances. Moderation is for the gutless and insincere. But it is reasonable that any power to mandate masks come from the power closest to the voters—local government. No federal power should tell them they must. No governor should tell them they can’t.
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana had it right this week when he told CNN, “When it comes to local conditions, if my hospital is full and my vaccination rate is low and infection rate is going crazy, we should allow local officials to make those decisions best for the community.” He added: “I think you govern best when you govern closest to the people being governed.”
And local powers should do it tactfully. Nothing has been so damaged by the pandemic as what had remained of American tact. Schools should keep free masks in the supply room and not embarrass kids if they don’t have one. No one should be a Nazi about enforcement. That only raises the temperature and deepens kids’ trauma. Make a decision and then encourage, persuade, exemplify helpful behavior.
So much is in the doing, especially in a crisis. Nothing is going to be perfect. Don’t we know this by now?
Maybe not. We’re 18 months into the pandemic: At this point we’re all long haulers. People are tired, nerves are frayed, and our inability to predict with confidence what’s coming only sharpens things. The illness has settled in. Variants will continue to evolve. No one knows the characteristics of future mutations. It’s possible we’re in the worst moment right now, with hardy Delta, and possible we’re not.
What rules of the road might help us as we enter the coming school year, what general attitudes?
- Regain a sense of give. Stop pushing each other around. Have a generous and sympathetic sense of who your fellow Americans are. There are 330 million of them. It’s a big lumbering thing we have here, with a lot of moving pieces and millions of views. People you think stupid may be thinking things that hadn’t occurred to you. We all have to be patient with each other, not only as a moral but a practical necessity.
- Stop picking on each other. Some people don’t want the vaccine, which is the only way out of this mess. Does it help to ostracize them? No. Instead, try to change their minds with respect, good faith and clear language. Humor, too. I read about a woman the other day who saw, on TikTok, that the arm you get the shot in becomes magnetic. Spoons and knives are drawn to it so you have to watch yourself when you’re walking around the kitchen. The theory is creative and insane. But this country cares for little so much as entertainment. Why aren’t there entertaining and funny spots on what the vaccine doesn’t do, along with what it does, all over TV and the internet?
- Admit there are reasons people don’t trust the experts. If you are an expert, don’t doubletalk. Play it straight, if you don’t know something admit it, don’t be media-coached within an inch of your life. It would be good if all scientific and medical spokesmen for the pandemic could ask themselves: Do you like the American people? Do you feel a quick broad affection for them when you think of them? A sense of kinship? Or do you see them as unruly imbeciles you have to get in line? Because if the latter, you’re going to show it—in your TV appearances and written materials. People will pick it up, because nothing is more obvious than a lack of affection.
And maybe some of us should regain or adjust our sense of proportion. There’s a bad disease out there that’s settled in. Approaching it with prudent realism is good. Taking precautions is good. But—it’s hard to say this without being misunderstood—some people have gotten neurotic about the virus. They’re fixated, they’ve wound up every fear they have in it. They’re not concerned about heart disease, cancer, the big killers, it’s all Covid. But Covid now is part of life; it’s not life. At a certain point you’ve got to remember what Sean Connery’s character said in David Mamet’s great screenplay of “The Untouchables.” The Canadian Mounties had screwed up the ambush, Eliot Ness’s men didn’t know whether to join in. “Oh what the hell, you gotta die of something,” Connery’s character said. And they charged.
Life has to be lived.
And school this fall is everything. The only truly dreadful decision that could be made is if class doesn’t start throughout the country in September. That would be a generational disaster for kids who by then will have missed more than a year at school, some at vital stages. They will never make up what they were supposed to learn, and kids from disturbed and neglectful homes will never fully recover from what they witnessed or experienced. It’s going to take a lot to turn that around. We can’t even imagine what it will take.
If school does not begin across the country, it will curdle public opinion toward Joe Biden. A president’s base is, actually, the entire country. He’d be better off fearing that.