COVID-19 is our first woke crisis.
The global pandemic is the excuse the left has been waiting for to vastly expand its control. Power brokers in government, the media and corporate America have consistently invoked often-shifting science, which must never be questioned, to impose coercive policies that diminish individual freedom while increasing dependence on government.
None of this is new; the left has been at it at least since the Progressive era in the early 1900s. To some degree an expansion of government authority was an inevitable and necessary response to the global pandemic. But taking a step back, it is clear that the left has used this temporary crisis to turbo-charge and entrench a radical ideology that represents a vast and divisive transformation of our politics and our national character.
The forces they are unleashing appear ascendant, and so COVID-19 is providing a window into America’s unsettling future, which includes these elements.
Government knows best, so shut up: The left simply wants control. Their ideological justification for this is that they ought to run things because they are smarter and better than everyone else. During COVID they have insistently claimed they were following the science to justify their power-grabbing policies. Let’s be clear, science is the most powerful tool humans have created to understand and tame nature. But science is not a book of absolute truths; it is the story of the never-ending quest for better answers to hard questions. It works because it has the freedom to change as new data and discoveries emerge. That, for instance, is why we no longer rely on leeches to treat everything from epilepsy to gout.
Such flexibility is anathema to authoritarians, whose power rests on their claims of infallibility. During COVID-19, governments have imposed a series of onerous policies – overly broad lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates – with questionable positive impacts. I’ll be the first to admit that reasonable arguments exist for all these measures, and most government interventions. The problem is the extraordinary effort to silence meaningful debate about these complex issues.
The people are children (Part 1): The response to COVID has been defined by the robust efforts of local, state and federal governments to control personal behavior. The underlying assumption of broad mask mandates and economic lockdowns is that individuals are incapable of assessing their levels of risk, of deciding whether it is safe for them to go into work, eat at a restaurant, work out at a gym, so the government must decide for them.
The people are children (Part 2): Some Americans have protested government policies that have injured their pocketbooks and health while infringing on their individual liberty, but the larger story is that most citizens haven’t raised a peep even as lockdowns have threatened their children’s education (and futures) and destroyed their opportunity to make a living. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff detailed in their seminal book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the rise of the welfare state, helicopter parenting, and the politics of grievance have destroyed traditional notions of personal responsibility. Americans increasingly believe both that someone else is responsible for their problems and that someone else should solve them. This has created a conformist policy of assent that makes people willing to do what they are told, no questions asked.
Bread without circuses: In addition to legal actions, threats and public shaming, the deeply indebted federal government has sought to silence dissent to its questionable policies by doling out trillions of dollars it does not have. Today, they buy our assent; in the future they may, as in China, just demand it.
The real inequality: COVID has exposed the growing divide in America between the powerful elites who are largely insulated from the policies they make and endorse and the rest of the people who suffer the consequences. Lockdowns and school closings have had an outsized negative impact on the poor, the young and people of color. Many of the low-paying jobs they’ve lost are not coming back. High earners have been relatively unscathed and many have thrived, thanks to the soaring stock market. Basically, the wealthy boomers who run the country have been happy to inflict massive pain on the young and poor in the hopes of protecting their own health.
Everyone is the same: It has been clear from the start that the elderly are at far greater risk of contracting COVID than anyone else. As of Feb. 17, 81% of COVID deaths have been among people 65 and older. Just one quarter of 1% of deaths have been among those 24 and younger. A rational response to the pandemic would have been to isolate and support the subset of imperiled Americans – including rigorous screening programs to ensure that the fragile elderly living in nursing homes do not come in contact with carriers. Instead, most governments have imposed one-size-fits-all policies that have exacted a devastating toll on hundreds of millions of Americans for whom COVID is no more deadly than the flu. They have rejected a data-based, nuanced approach because they want to use the crisis to maximize their seizure of power.
Everyone is different: Once the vaccine was developed, most governments temporarily forsook collectivism for social justice. After making sure they got the first shots, our leaders created complex formulas regarding who should come next. Along with taking the obvious approach – start with vulnerable Americans who are most at risk – they also arrogantly sought to tell us which jobs were “essential” and which races more deserving.
When the history of COVID-19 is written years from now, only some of the chapters will describe the emergence of the deadly virus and the heroic efforts of caregivers and researchers to contain and vanquish the effects of this lethal pathogen. Much of it, instead, will show how woke elites used the crisis to fundamentally transform America.