In situations of persistent conflict, it is really hard to continue to wish good things for your self and your group without also sliding off to wishing bad things for “them.” That is one of the very large problems the U. S. faces at the moment. The COVID 19 pandemic has made that abundantly clear.
The Republican party has become the party of Distrust. One of the things that makes this possible is that it makes some undifferentiated THEM available as a scapegoat. You can urge the party faithful not to support anything that would bring aid and comfort to THEM without raising the question of the best way to respond to the present situation.
The old Republican party wasn’t like that. Heather Cox Richardson reminded me in her column today that President Eisenhower characterized his program as “a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands of the welfare of the whole Nation.”
There are two positive formulations there. There are things we have to do for the welfare of the nation as a whole. Let’s do those. On the other hand, there is the freedom of the individual to consider, a freedom that needs to be respected. No modern Republican could make an appeal like that because the Republican party as become the party of distrust.
Ross Douthat noted in the New York Times this morning that the simplest way–he granted that there were other considerations–would be simply to pay people to take the vaccine. Among the reasons he gives for this approach is one I like a lot. It is cheap. The return to the society of this paltry investment in the nation’s welfare would pay for the expense many times over.
But…really? Have we been driven as far as that? A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a lot of people don’t think the case for the vaccine has been made. And why is that? It is because the major institutions that oversee the health of the public can’t be trusted. And how do we know they can’t be trusted? Because the party of Distrust–the Republicans–have been shouting it from the rooftops for forty years. These formerly trusted institutions have become part of THEM.
So what would have become a trusting (and inexpensive) response to the unanimous judgment of the professionals has become a very expensive exercise in compliance that the government is forced to purchase. Providing the services the country needs to an untrusting population is really really expensive.
It can be argued that allowing everyone to exercise their own judgment is the best way to solve the problem. That’s a good looking approach at the beginning, but eventually, we need to say that it isn’t working. So it isn’t “a good way to solve the problem” because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. That would be the place where a sensible society would invoke Plan B, whether that involves punishing people who refuse vaccination or rewarding people so they will accept it.
But both of those treat those plans as ways to solve the problem. If “I get to make the choice for myself” is asserted as a right, then there is no Plan B. That brings us to President Eisenhower’s use of the word “untrammeled.” Untrammeled–literally “unbound”–individualism is the kind that will accept no amount of public benefit as an adequate reason to give up even a fragment of precious autonomy.
In the 1940s, they used to say “there’s a war on, you know” as a reason to do something for the public benefit that the government could not otherwise require you to do. “There’s a war on, you know” saved the government untold trillions of dollars in compliance they didn’t have to buy. Conversely, the persistent cultivation of distrust we have seen from the Republicans–oh, and the Russians, too–does cost those trillions. There isn’t a war on anymore.
And the Party of Distrust considers only the benefit to itself when crucial public programs fail.
That’s really the problem the Democrats face. Even the consistent achievement of crucial public purposes is not going to rebuild trust. Trust is built by explanations, not by achievements. Every beneficial program that can be explained away as “politically motivated” does not have the effect of building up our fund of trust. And “trust is cheaper than purchase,” true as it is, is not the kind of explanation that is going to restore trust.