Over the weekend, a strange and revealing episode of political theater surfaced. An American nurse named Kaci Hickox, who had just returned to the United States from West Africa where she had been working with Doctors Without Borders to help patients afflicted with Ebola, was quarantined against her will in a tent inside a Newark hospital. To public-health officials, this seemed an extreme overreaction: There was no reason to think that Hickox, who was completely healthy, had Ebola, and soon she began to protest the absurdity and inhumanity of her circumstances. Among other indignities, she was provided no shower.
That Hickox was confined in this manner was a direct consequence of a policy of mandatory 21-day confinement for any health-care worker returning from the Ebola zone that was made on Friday by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. (That same day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had made a similar announcement.) Over the course of the weekend, virtually the entire public-health and political Establishment turned against Christie and Cuomo. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, appeared on five Sunday shows to point out that there was no scientific basis for the quarantine and that it was socially counterproductive; Obama administration officials were reported to be working feverishly to get Christie and Cuomo to reverse the policies; local public-health officials were said to be furious that they hadn’t been consulted, that the governors had gone over their heads. The outcry was so vigorous that both governors eventually changed their policies; today, Hickox was given permission to go home to Maine. Nevertheless a mystery lingers. Christie is an unusually talented politician, and both he and Cuomo are exceptionally accomplished. Why did both men so badly misread this? What were they thinking?
It was especially compelling to watch Christie defending his own judgment this weekend, because Christie in the grips of a dreadful and potentially disastrous error seemed to be so similar to Christie at his most unifying and heroic: the same loose everyman bluster, the same fixated authority. Christie assumed his usual posture, as the defender of an in-group against a threat posed by an outsider. “I understand that this has made this woman uncomfortable and I’m sorry that she’s uncomfortable but the fact is I have the people in New Jersey as my first and foremost responsibility to protect their public health,” he told reporters Sunday. One common Christie tactic is to unfurl his considerable wrath against a minor figure who, for selfish reasons, has cast himself against the public interest. On Fox News Sunday, asked whether public-health officials were right that voluntary quarantine would be sufficient, Christie turned to this tactic again, pointing out that members of an NBC News camera crew had been observed “picking up takeout in Princeton and walking around the streets of Princeton” while under voluntary quarantine there — proof, he suggested, that with something as serious as Ebola a voluntary system wasn’t sufficient. But of course no member of the NBC News crew had Ebola, and even if they did, they couldn’t have transmitted it to anyone else by walking the streets or picking up tacos. The temptation this weekend was to see the Hickox episode in cleanly philosophical terms — as pitting the rights of an individual against the safety of the community. In his appearances, Christie seemed to see it this way, too.
Some deep tension within American politics, on both its left and right, has been announcing itself over the past few years, between libertarian tendencies and communitarian ones. Now that demographic and economic changes have made it less easy to speak of a coherent Middle America or middle class (traditionally, the respective rhetorical touchstones of Republicans and Democrats) the matter of how to weigh government’s obligations to the group against its responsibilities to the individual recur over and over — in the inequality and national security debates, but also in emotional arguments over campus rape or stop-and-frisk.
Among Republicans, Christie is the great communitarian, the wagon-circler and defender of the in-group. It’s no accident that before he was waylaid by the bridge scandal, Christie was programmatically picking fights with Rand Paul as a way of beginning his 2016 presidential campaign — the libertarian in that corner, the communitarian in this one. At times during the past few years it has seemed like Christie is heading for a truly great political accomplishment, modernizing conservative communitarianism, expanding the in-group so that it is no longer simply just white, Christian, male, and socially repressive. One of his essential talents is the ability to recognize, in the noise and manias of current events, when an alarm bell has rung, when the community is being threatened from outside, and to rise to their defense with a boxer’s readiness. Sometimes, as during the storm, this comprehension has made him a hero. At others, as when he got in the face of a public-school teacher, it has betrayed him, lapsing into a petty and vengeful partisanship that few outsiders can stomach.
I think that Christie, and also Cuomo, simply misread the nature of the public alarm. Despite the tone on cable news, and despite the wildly over-publicized decisions of a few parents in a few school districts to keep their kids home, there hasn’t been a public panic over Ebola. People are still traveling on airplanes. They are not flooding the hospitals with anxieties that minor symptoms might portend Ebola. Everyone whose job it is to predict public opinion seems to have been bracing for a panic. But it hasn’t come. A dumb and snotty cottage industry has developed in making fun of those who are freaking out. (As I write, the most-viewed story on The New Yorker’s website is a “humor” column by Andy Borowitz titled, “Study: Fear of Ebola Highest Among People Who Did Not Pay Attention During Math and Science Classes.”) But really there hasn’t been much excess fear at all.
By the time this became apparent Christie had already adopted his customary pose — Davy Crockett at the barricades, seeing Comanches in the international-arrivals lounge at Newark Airport. He wouldn’t be dissuaded by making “this woman uncomfortable” if she posed a threat. But when Kaci Hickox wrote an outraged story about her confinement in the Dallas Morning News, and when it became clear that public-health officials thought she posed no threat at all, Christie was left fulminating against an enemy that no one else saw. In this case, the public’s sympathies were with the outsider.
The real question — for Christie but also for those who share his sensibility on the left, among them Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton — is whether that will be the case more frequently. The country is evolving; in-group ties are weakening, and a politics of individual rights has grown stronger. Christie’s own politics, his instinctive pugilistic communitarianism, may seem a little anachronistic in a country less inclined to see outsiders as enemies. Perhaps his politics are supple enough to evolve. But already there is something that feels characteristic about Christie in this episode, in which he rushed to the barricades to fight an enemy that no one else could see.