For good or ill, the Democratic Party’s brand is coupled in voters’ minds with Covid-related restrictions on social and economic life. For much of the pandemic, this was no political liability. But as the balance of voters’ enthusiasm has shifted toward constituencies that favor the loosening of those restrictions, that dynamic has begun to change. Democrats know they have a problem. They just don’t know what to do about it. So far, the impulse among embattled Democrats struggling to articulate the goal of perpetual pandemic restrictions has been to display abject contempt for anyone who questions their authority.
That seems to have been the approach Joe Biden took during a two-hour press conference in which the president’s irascibility grew in direct proportion to the toughness of the questions he was asked. “The bottom line on Covid-19 is that we are in a better place than we’ve been and have been thus far, clearly better than a year ago,” the president insisted. “Very few schools are closing,” he continued. “Over 95 percent are still open.” Indeed, Biden added minutes later, “as high as 98 percent of the schools in America are open, functioning, and capable doing the job.”
Those who find this argument convincing must believe their neighbors are suffering from a false consciousness. A Gallup poll released last week found 58 percent of Americans believe the “coronavirus situation in the U.S.” is getting either “a little” or “a lot worse.” A majority are afraid they’ll contract the disease—the highest level of apprehension over infection Gallup has measured in a year. Americans are going back to avoiding large crowds and small gatherings and traveling via public transportation. They are once again refusing to eat in restaurants, and they increasingly report masking up in public.
As for schools, many are “open” only superficially. As of January 14, the index Burbio, which tracks pandemic-related disruptions in K-12 public schools, found that nearly 5,600 schools were “not offering in-person instruction.” The subpar educational experience afforded students who suffer through “hybridized learning” and the demands on their parents’ time render these schools “open” in a purely academic sense. Joe Biden’s efforts to argue the pandemic out of existence are frustrated by his own actions. When the president confesses that “Omicron has now been challenging us in a way that—it’s the new enemy” and advises Americans to continue to mask up and test themselves regularly, Americans can be forgiven for assuming that the worst is still ahead of us.
The same phenomenon is on display whenever a Democratic politician is asked to explain what strict child-masking policies in schools are designed to achieve. The question itself is treated as though it is the fevered expression of a paranoid mind that no rational person should even have to acknowledge. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul provides us with the most recent example of this sort of condescension.
When asked by a local reporter if the state’s mask mandate in schools was based on any data, the governor veered off into a bizarre peroration about how children are much more placidly governable than their parents. “My daughter had a meltdown about having to put sneakers on to go to kindergarten. She got used to wearing sneakers in school,” she said. “They adapt better than adults do.”
What Hochul did not do was answer the question. If she had, she’d have had to contend with the studies of U.S. children that reach ambiguous conclusions about the efficacy of masking children in schools, and she might have had to address the fact that few other industrialized societies have imposed this burden on their children (with little observable effect on their respective case rates). Moreover, if the scientific justification for masking children is dubious, the legal justification for such a policy is nonexistent. That was the eminently reasonable finding of a state judge who determined that Hochul lacks the authority to implement such an order because New York’s legislature rescinded the emergency powers they provided her predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, last March. Voters deserve a more compelling rationale for mask mandates on children. Instead, they are derided as intemperate children for even daring to question their representatives.
This impulse has spilled over from the political class and infected the commentariat, too. In her latest article for the New York Times, opinion writer Michelle Goldberg scolds the Americans who are vaccinated, boosted, and “done” with the pandemic. What’s their problem anyway, she asks? “Even with Omicron around, there’s a fair bit of normality available, especially if you don’t have kids,” Goldberg writes. “Here in New York City, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and theaters are generally open, though shows are closing at the last minute when cast members fall ill. You can have a party or go on vacation.” What you can’t do, she adds, is force those with “vulnerabilities” to observe a less strict standard of social engagement, even if they can force you into that condition.
To summarize, you should not feel burdened by the persistence of pandemic-related mitigation measures because you can “generally” patronize most establishments, though in some cases you have to present identification and vaccination cards to access them (and woe to those who do not have a booster shot, which some businesses do not recognize as fully vaccinated). Indeed, you can party and vacation, as your freedoms of movement and association have not been circumscribed by your beneficent government. What more do you want?
Call me naïve, but if the Democratic Party’s argument for itself ahead of the midterms is “what is your problem exactly?” Democrats are probably going to lose. After all, that has been the approach they’ve taken in response to skeptics of Covid maximalism since late 2020, and they’ve been doing a lot of losing ever since. Now, Democrats are trying to argue voters out of their own experiences. The only thing more arrogant would be to believe it’s a strategy that could actually work.