The backlash is coming.
It already seems clear that the first major political and cultural eruption of the Biden years will be a roiling populist backlash against the next round of COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions on ordinary life.
We saw this sentiment play out in sporadic anti-lockdown demonstrations last spring, and it has driven ongoing resistance to masks. But it is, in all likelihood, about to reach a entirely new level — fueled by exhaustion with the virus, infuriating displays of elite hypocrisy and the shattered credibility of the public-health establishment.
The ascension of Joe Biden will add force to the reaction. It is an iron law of American politics that whichever party doesn’t control the presidency will suspect the other of plotting to impose a tyranny, so the fear and loathing of COVID-19 restrictions, somewhat muted on the right while Donald Trump was president, will deepen and intensify.
The right’s populism and limited-government impulse, which separated in the Trump years, will presumably be reunited in the push against lockdowns in a way that they haven’t been since the days of the Tea Party.
“Lockdowns. Mask police. Curfews. What about freedom?” asked conservative Rep. Jim Jordan in a recent tweet, forecasting things to come.
It would be much better if we could find a prudent middle path through the next several months, as the pandemic enters its worst phase and as new vaccines arrive that will soon start changing everything. But a significant segment of the US public has lost its patience with a new normal that has, at times, been arbitrary and poorly thought through.
When the new virus first hit our shores, and we knew much less about it, the case for lockdowns was strong to keep the health-care system from getting overwhelmed and to play for time (and better treatments). In retrospect, though, the nationwide lockdowns of the spring closed down some states before they experienced their initial waves of the disease, imposing economic, mental-health and medical costs without much upside.
After that kind of sacrifice, it’s hard to double-dip and ask people to do it again.
Especially when the latest advice runs against the grain of one of the nation’s oldest traditions, namely Thanksgiving, and when prominent pro-restriction officeholders discredit themselves with their own behavior.
A week or so ago, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told residents of her city, “You must cancel the normal Thanksgiving plans. Particularly if they include guests that do not live in your immediate household.”
Yet just days earlier, she happily joined a crowd celebrating Biden’s election victory. Afterward, she said that there are times when “we actually do need to have relief and come together,” without explaining why this wide-ranging justification wouldn’t apply to the Thanksgiving gatherings she wanted to cancel.
During this moment, the political class should have been especially sensitive to playing by its own rules, when those rules have been so relatively easy to bear for the elite and so punishing for ordinary workers. Still, the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Gov. Gavin Newsom have flouted strictures, rather than forgo a visit to a hair salon or a world-class French restaurant.
The appeal of such politicians and the incoming Biden administration is always to public-health experts, even though they, too, have largely jettisoned any claim to public trust.
To simplify and generalize, at the start of this year, they downplayed the virus for fear that it would stoke xenophobia. Then, they lurched into five-alarm-fire mode.
They poured cold water on masks, before turning around and insisting on them despite ambiguous evidence on the efficacy of cloth masks.
They preached the gospel of social distancing, until mass Black Lives Matter protests erupted, blessing these huge, often unruly gatherings because fighting racism is supposedly a paramount public-health issue.
The upshot will be poisonous contention in the months ahead before the advent of that most American solution — the clever technological fix, in the form of transformative vaccines.