The pandemic is still with us, but the suffocating regime of stigma and shame that once enforced restrictions on social interaction is gone. It disappeared along with the incentives that compelled primarily left-leaning Democrats to wield it like a weapon against those who questioned their remedies for the ongoing outbreak.
“Suddenly,” Politico reported, “public health officials say social justice matters more than social distance.” That dispatch compiled quote after quote from academics, epidemiologists, and medical practitioners in prestigious institutions insisting that the political imperatives of this moment vastly outweigh public health concerns.
This week, more than 1,000 epidemiologists, doctors, social workers, medical students, and healthcare professionals put their names to an open letter affirming that nationwide anti-police violence demonstrations address “the paramount public health problem of pervasive racism.” That word—“paramount”—establishes that which was only conveyed in the subtext: the all-consuming pandemic and the Depression-era levels of unemployment and economic contraction engineered to fight it doesn’t matter anymore.
Those supposed public health experts are not alone. The politicians whose prohibitive commitment to the preservation of all life even at the expense of civil liberties and economic stability have all but abandoned those concerns. The nation’s most enthusiastic lockdown enforcers, all of whom we were told were guided only by the science, are suddenly guided by the politics of protest.
Even with the most stringent phase-one restrictions still in place, Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy celebrated his state’s residents “taking to the streets.” Indeed, he mocked those who “protest what day nail salons are opening”—the service providers who also provide for their communities and families, and who support the state with their taxes—as being engaged in something less noble than demonstrating against police abuses. It was only a few weeks ago that Murphy was admonishing New Jerseyans and, especially, “young people” who had failed to abide by social-distancing guidelines as “selfish.” The conditions around the pandemic did not change overnight. His political incentives did.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been among the nation’s most aggressive lockdown enthusiasts, utterly unmoved by appeals from those for whom such draconian restrictions were unendurable. When protests broke out against her proscriptions on social and economic activity, she reprimanded those unruly Michiganders who, she claimed, would be responsible for lockdown’s indefinite extension. Shoulder-to-shoulder demonstrations, she said, are “precisely what makes this kind of disease drag out and expose more people.” Yesterday, Whitmer walked at the head of a densely packed protest march through Detroit. “Elections matter,” the governor told the crowd of demonstrators. Indeed, they do.
In early May, New York City Bill de Blasio dispatched the NYPD to break up small gatherings of people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest the ongoing lockdown orders, issuing summonses and detaining the most recalcitrant. “People who want to make their voices heard, there’s plenty of ways to do it without gathering in person,” the mayor said. One month later, de Blasio has suddenly discovered the virtue of protesters, so long as they were protesting in a cause he found sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” he said dismissively when asked about the disparate enforcement of his restrictions, “that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”
You could spend all day itemizing the hypocrisies we’ve had to endure. Suffice it to say, the contempt of these lawmakers toward their most complacent citizens appears boundless. They were never the dispassionate, data-driven empiricists they pretended to be. But, you might think, at least the disregard these protesters have shown toward social distancing guidelines has shattered the consensus around the value of lockdown. You’d be wrong.
While phased re-openings are underway around much of the country, the resumption of anything resembling normal economic and social life is still a long way off. And if these gatherings do reverse the gains America’s cities have made in combatting this outbreak, the metrics that were once used to gauge a region’s readiness to emerge from their hiding holes will start moving in the wrong direction. In New York City, for example, they already are.
State-level lockdown orders still have the force of law. An individual business owner might try to defy them, but that individual will still be subject to removal orders, summonses, municipal-court appearances, and fines. It was already painfully obvious that lockdown was enforceable only as long as the group that defied those orders was small enough to disperse. These protests have demonstrated that it isn’t just having the right politics that matter to our most performative lockdown proponents—it’s the size of your crowd.
This is not the rule of law. Whether or not these orders are applied is contingent upon the power of the forces arrayed against them. If that power is sufficient, the force of law is null. But what are America’s law-abiding citizens to do when it seems so evident that the law applies only to them?
These are America’s stakeholders. They do not gather in numbers sufficient to overrule the restrictions on their lives and livelihoods. They do not commit vandalism and property destruction. They do not hold the system they believe in hostage. They have only two options to register their disapproval—vote or leave. But rest assured, their disapproval is rising.
These citizens are not blind to the abuses of law enforcement or the prevalence of racial disparities in American society. Opinion polls suggest the public is deeply sympathetic to the cause of racial equality. They support the kinds of reforms the peaceful variant of these demonstrations are demanding. But what the lockdown’s most galling hypocrites have done is to answer injustice with injustice.
They enforce these restrictions selectively, targeting only those who agree to be compelled by them. They fail to protect businesses from rioting and looting even while barring their proprietors from taking on that burden themselves. While the Americans who chafe—justly and understandably, in some cases—under excessive policing are acknowledged, those who perceive themselves to be acutely unprotected by authorities are ignored. They are uncared for, undiscussed, and unappreciated. That is the recipe for a powerful and long-lived political backlash.
“For my friends, everything,” the Brazilian strongman Getulio Vargas is credited with saying. “For my enemies, the law.” America’s complicit and anxious majority can be forgiven for thinking that they are, in the view of their political leaders, the enemy. It would be foolish to pretend as though they won’t start acting like it.