The state of Vermont should be a COVID success story. It has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the Union. It has managed to maintain shockingly low levels of infection-related deaths compared to the rest of the country. Its hospitals are burdened not by the pandemic but by the conditions that went untreated in deference to the ongoing national emergency.
And yet, Vermonters are in a state of despair. “What we’re feeling right now is a collective sense of disappointment and sadness,” mourned the state Senate’s pro tempore, Becca Balint, in an interview with the Atlantic. With the onset of the winter months and the public’s annual migration indoors, the virus has returned. The state did everything right—indeed, it “earned” its “return to normalcy”—but the virus has not been eradicated. “If Vermont has finally lost control of the pandemic, what chance is there for the rest of the country?” the report asks gloomily.
This is an instructive psychological orientation; one that has overtaken both the technocratic governing class and their activist allies. This cycle of desperately seeking to “control” the pandemic, failing, and retreating into despair has repeated itself throughout Joe Biden’s first year in office. But those who are most exposed to these temptations never self-correct. They only seek out new avenues through which they might restore their elusive sense of command.
The latest example of this is the idea, promoted by no less a figure than Dr. Anthony Fauci, that the definition of what qualifies as “fully vaccinated” will have to change in observance of our fuller understanding of this disease. Fauci indicated that the public health apparatus will soon determine that those of you with a full course of COVID vaccines are no longer fully immunized. That status will be reserved for those who’ve also received their booster shots, which have not yet been approved for all American adults. He’s been retailing this idea for months, along with the contradictory notions that we should prioritize the export of vaccines abroad over boosters at home and that “we should be preventing people from getting sick from COVID even if they don’t wind up in the hospital.” If you’re still listening to the public health apparatus, despair is a perfectly rational emotional response.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to either the doctor or the elected officials to whom he is theoretically subordinate that redefining “fully vaccinated” now would be profoundly disruptive. This has become a quasi-legal status, which in some municipalities (including the nation’s most populous city) literally allows residents to enter places of business and engage in local commerce. Federal workers must prove this status as a prerequisite for employment. And, if the Biden administration has its way, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would fine businesses that don’t enforce this status among their employees. Turning this tanker around would be a real logistical challenge.
That hasn’t stopped this conspicuously talkative public health official from spouting off, and the cultish devotion to his every pronouncement suggests he won’t be even gently corrected anytime soon. That is the problem. There is a profound reluctance among Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats to admit that the pandemic-related costs imposed on the public are not justified by their rewards. The goalposts for success are always moving, and no one bothers to explain what happened to the goalposts. The governing class has made repeated demands on the public’s patience without ever asking for it.
A simple truth that the Biden administration and its allies refuse to acknowledge is that this administration owes its existence to the campaign trail promise that they would wrap their arms around the pandemic and tame it. They failed in that charge, but they’ve failed proudly and with the utmost self-confidence. The Biden administration hasn’t spent one second explaining what happened to the idea that the pandemic would be functionally over by July 4. They haven’t bothered to tell the public what became of those vaccination milestones we once so eagerly anticipated. They don’t seem to think it’s necessary to tell you what happened to the emancipatory idea of “herd immunity,” a quaint notion that disappeared from the public health lexicon as a result of recently determined factors you’re just supposed to internalize through cultural osmosis. They don’t think any of this modesty is necessary. But it is.
As a result of this pessimistic public relations campaign, the nation is sinking into a bizarre state. Americans are increasingly optimistic about their own prospects but down on America’s. According to a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, a plurality of Americans believe the pandemic is “over as it pertains to your own life,” but the vast majority believe it is still a serious threat to the rest of the country. More registered voters think the situation will get worse before it gets better, even as they describe their own conditions as steadily improving. And as you might expect, the partisan divide is chasmic. Among the president’s voters, pessimism has become a sign of tribal loyalty. For Republicans and in Republican-dominated areas of the country, the pandemic is an increasingly academic notion they encounter when they read dispatches from blue America.
A first-term president’s chief priority is to convince the American people that they are better off than they were under his predecessor. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to forecast what will happen if Biden and the Democrats continue to inculcate hopelessness in their voters. As Vermont’s experience suggests, the pandemic has evolved to the point at which it has become endemic and seasonal. Its worst excesses are now regional and limited mostly to those who have chosen to expose themselves to higher risk. To draw the logical conclusion, this means the national emergency portion of our program is over. The president should say so; declare the pandemic over—arbitrarily and with prejudice.
There will be plenty who resist this notion—the unresponsive public health apparatus foremost among them—but that’s their problem. The Democratic Party’s problem is preserving the public’s confidence in its governance. For now, the Biden administration has lost sight of the single most important factor that gave birth to it. If Democrats are stumped as to why their party’s “brand is broken,” that uncomplicated explanation suffices.