Rules for Thee, But Not for Me

I, too, would like to attend a party right now, Governor Newsom. Photo: Daniel Kim/AP/Shutterstock

Cabo is probably nice this time of year. Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, would know: The Austin American-Statesman reports that he traveled there in November on a private jet, one day after hosting his daughter’s wedding. Adler is a hard worker; he took a break from his trip to record a special video for his constituents. “We need to stay home if you can. This is not the time to relax,” he said. An astute point! But one he clearly struggles to internalize. Upon being found out, Adler defended both vacation and wedding, even though the guest list at the latter event exceeded city recommendations on private gatherings. He eventually apologized.

The mayor joins an unfortunate cohort. He is one of several elected officials to flout safety standards over the last few weeks of the pandemic. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, attended a party at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant. A night later, so did London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco. Denver mayor Michael Hancock flew to see family for Thanksgiving — after telling his staff to refrain from all travel.

Everyone is very sorry. Everyone is a Democrat, too. There are no anti-maskers in this bunch; no one is trying to inherit Trump’s base. But the contrast between their party affiliation and their behavior isn’t as incongruous as it initially seems. Partisanship cannot help us understand the seductive qualities of a French Laundry or the allure of a Mexican resort town. Nor does it explain why Hancock would scold his workers about the very mistake he planned to make himself. Each politician shares something beyond a flair for the hypocritical. They share a class, and the rules have always been different for them.

Inequality is the subtext of most outcomes of the pandemic. The virus has proven deadliest for Black and brown people. It finds its most productive feeding grounds on reservations and in prisons, and in the crowded nursing homes where the elderly poor go to die. As some conservatives explain it, these deaths are a natural phenomenon, like a hurricane, or maybe a tornado. Blame God. But we should know by now that the virus maps a world we’d already made. If we can perceive a hierarchy in its death toll, we can only blame ourselves.

With that as our context, the actions of Democrats like Adler are easier to understand. They know what the science says, and because they know, they’re able to convince themselves that they’re intelligent and savvy enough to safely flout the rules. If it seems like they’ve lost all sense of priority — why risk a fancy dinner out? Why take a nonessential flight? — understand that we have different priorities. They’re not immune from the virus, but they are insulated by power from its aftershocks. They have access to rapid testing and better care if they fall ill. They can behave like nothing’s changed, because for them, nothing really has. The pandemic, and the ensuing economic crisis, are problems they have to manage for other people. The threats they face are not acute.

They do, however, pose an imminent threat to others. If you can still afford to go to a restaurant with three Michelin stars right now, maybe it’s difficult to see yourself as belonging to the public. You are smart, and your friends are smart, and so is a place like French Laundry, which must take meticulous precautions — it’s not McDonald’s, after all. But no one is infallible. People make mistakes, even mayors and governors, and the more powerful you are, the likelier it is that someone weaker will bear the burden of your error. People had to serve at Gavin Newsom’s party.

The hypocrisy will delight conservatives, eager as always for any example of elite overreach. But Newsom’s dinner has nothing to do with big government, and it doesn’t prove that lockdowns or mask mandates are unnecessary. People should stay home and avoid travel; cases of COVID-19 are rising almost everywhere. But they should remember that Newsom, and the Austin mayor’s trip to Mexico, long after the pandemic concludes. This is how class power works. The rules are always flexible, as long as you can afford a timeshare in Cabo.

The Class-War Pandemic