Altitude is a column by POLITICO founding editor John Harris, offering weekly perspective on politics in a moment of radical disruption.
Laughter has been banned indefinitely during the pandemic, by order of all but a few hold-out governors, on the unanimous recommendation of health experts.
Many people, however, found it challenging to abide by the rules early in the crisis, when libertarian U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky announced that he had caught coronavirus (or, more precisely, that coronavirus had caught him). They had to conceal their amusement by directing laughter and potential airborne germs into bent elbows.
What kind of sick person is entertained by the sickness of another person?
Well, the kind of person who enjoys discovering new evidence that the Political Gods have a sense of humor. Just as there are famously no atheists in a foxhole, it would seem that there are few small-government libertarians in the midst of a pandemic.
Paul himself was out of the Senate in quarantine, so he was spared the indignity a few days later of joining a 96 to zero vote of his colleagues (including many self-described fiscal conservatives) in passing a two-trillion dollar emergency coronavirus recovery bill, which it is now clear is only a down payment on the eventual cost of federal efforts to protect the country from economic catastrophe after a nationwide shutdown. Ideology, it seems, has been suspended; everyone is counting on Big Government now.
Ideology hasn’t been suspended. It has been forcibly suppressed—in ways that inevitably will come roaring back, sometimes in highly toxic ways.
Now that Paul has recovered—he says he felt fine and symptom-free the whole time—it is a good time to ask: Are we sure that the pandemic joke will ultimately be on him?
What if the opposite is true? Far from rendering Paul’s brand of politics irrelevant, it seems possible, even probable, that the wake of the coronavirus will be a powerful boost to the animating spirt of libertarianism: Leave me alone.
Among the questions looming over American politics is one about the nature of what promise to be multiple backlashes over different dimensions of the coronavirus crisis. Most obvious is what price Trump pays for his administration’s tardiness in responding to the contagion in its early stages. Less obvious is what price supporters of activist government pay for the most astounding and disruptive intervention in the everyday life of the nation since World War II.
The imminent libertarian surge is not a sure thing but it more than a hunch. In informal conversations, one hears the sentiment even from people I know to be fundamentally progressive and inclined to defer to whatever health officials say is responsible and necessary to mitigate the worst effects of coronavirus. It is possible both to support the shutdown and powerfully resent it — the draconian nature of the response, and the widespread perception that to voice skepticism of any aspect of its necessity is outside respectable bounds.
The absolutist nature of the country’s shutdown and the economic rescue package have democratic consent—enacted by a bipartisan roster of governors and overwhelming votes in the U.S. Congress—but it was the kind of consent achieved by warning would-be dissenters, Are you serious? There is no choice!
Many people concluded that for now there is nothing to do but suck it up. It won’t be surprising if some of those people eventually have an intense desire to spit out.
If so, this would be entirely consistent with the history of crises, both recent ones and more distant. Very often, after some cataclysmic external event, politics responds in ways that scramble normal divisions and create the impression—as in that recent 96-0 vote—that familiar ideological dynamics have been suspended.
Almost always, this is an illusion. Ideology hasn’t been suspended. It has been forcibly suppressed—in ways that inevitably will come roaring back, sometimes in highly toxic ways.
The most vivid example in American history likely was around World War II. As the world was aflame, but the United States not yet engaged in hostilities, the country was bitterly and intensely divided over the all-consuming question of that era: intervention or isolation. Then came Pearl Harbor, and the debate ended in an instant. Isolationism looked to be a defunct ideological force. Except it wasn’t really. The movement’s essential spirit—fear of corrupt and scheming interests beyond American borders—found new and malicious expression in McCarthyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In the modern era, two other moments of crisis produced the illusion of ideological interruptus. Recall that the votes authorizing war with Iraq in 2002 and the bailout of banks during the financial crisis of 2008 were passed in the Senate with majority support of both parties. Both issues, Iraq and the bailout, generated fierce ideological backlashes that echo to this day.
We will learn over the course of 2020 what relevance these familiar ideological dynamics have to the politics of pandemic. Do you trust Trump and the way his impulsive, personality-driven style is the more flamboyant question. Do you trust interventionist government — supported by nearly all governors of both parties, following the dictates of health professionals — is the more fundamental question.
The pandemic response arguably could represent liberal values at their best. The U.S. Government, guided by scientific expertise, protected vulnerable people through a noble exercise of shared sacrifice for shared benefit.
The pandemic response arguably could represent a caricature of what critics disdain about liberalism. The U.S. Government, responding in a panicky way to headlines and hysteria, ran roughshod over individual freedom and the private sector, a problem whose only remedy was even more remorseless expansion of government.
The fact that even tough-minded Republican governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland or Mike DeWine of Ohio ordered shutdowns to curb coronavirus weakens the intellectual case for the second argument. But what matters politically is the emotional case, which looks to be strong. There were protestors in Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere this week demanding faster action to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen the economy.
These protesters surely would cite the widespread shaming of people who go to the beach instead of sheltering at home or refuse to wear masks as evidence of the scolding, sanctimonious character of the supposedly progressive mind.
Laughter may be forbidden in the pandemic but finger-wagging is encouraged, so long as done from a distance of six feet or more.
Scolding, meanwhile, brings us back to Rand Paul and his not especially nasty case of COVID-19. Laughter may be forbidden in the pandemic but finger-wagging is encouraged, so long as done from a distance of six feet or more. Paul was excoriated by many for working out at the Senate gym while awaiting his coronavirus test results.
He responded that he only took a test out of an abundance of caution on his own initiative, not because he was feeling symptoms or required by official guidelines. Maybe so, but the consensus was clear: shame on him.
But the shame game can be tricky for accusers no less than accused. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has drawn praise, and some mockery, for driving around Chicago sternly scolding people at parks and trails to go home. But then she got skewered when she personally ignored the order that haircuts are a verboten non-essential activity. Lightfoot responded that as mayor she is the “public face of this city” and has to look good. She said her stylist was wearing gloves and mask, though when they posed on social media neither was wearing those.
The controversy was making it hard, once again, to ignore the no-laughing rule. But it highlighted a serious point: The nature of the crisis and stay-at-home orders represent a collision of public policy with this intimate details of daily life.
Even non-libertarians, for instance, might be glad to have someone like Paul being heard about the proper rules if government proceeds with proposals to use mobile phone apps to track the movements of people who test positive for coronavirus. The pandemic may be one of those historical moments that rewrite ideological lines— but we can be sure it won’t erase them.