The Democratic Party’s pivot away from non-pharmaceutical interventions to stop the spread of COVID-19 and toward normality has sent Tucker Carlson into one of his customary rage spirals. “Over the course of less than a week, the same people who have systematically turned America into a quarantine camp suddenly, out of nowhere, started calling in unison for medical freedom,” he ranted last night. “Suddenly, they sounded like Bobby Kennedy Jr., pretty much all of them.”
The left has a critique of the Democrats’ pullback from NPIs, too. And while I don’t agree with it, it’s at least consistent: They want maximum effort to contain a pandemic that is still killing people. The right-wing backlash, on the other hand, is downright bizarre. After spending almost two years raging at every public-health measure, the right seems equally angry that they’re going away.
Their complaint is that Democrats are only doing this as a gambit to win the 2022 elections. “You should know this virus was killed, not by science, but by the midterm elections,” charges Carlson. “It turns out the only real cure for COVID-19 is the political ambition of the Democratic Party.”
The same charge is echoing across the right-wing landscape. “This is not about science — this is about Democrats looking at polls and panicking at their diminishing midterm prospects,” claims the Washington Examiner. “Why are we seeing this shift now? The science has not changed, but perhaps the internal polling has,” surmises the American Spectator. “Only one circumstance has changed, and it has nothing to do with science and data — unless the science was an experiment to test parents’ patience and the data is the number of infuriated Americans calling B.S. on Democrats’ twisted games,” charges the Federalist. “The thing that’s changed is the calendar year. It’s 2022, and Democrats are beginning to evaluate the numbers: the number of months left until November.”
So the theory seems to be that the public-health situation has not changed, and the Democratic Party reversed its posture on the pandemic because it suddenly became aware that there would be elections in November.
My theory is that the Democrats have been aware for quite some time that there would be an election in November 2022. What has changed, rather, is that the two giant waves of COVID cases are plummeting. Here, via the New York Times coronavirus tracker, is a visualization of national case counts:
You don’t need a complicated theory to explain why the party in power is relaxing coronavirus restrictions right now. Indeed, if you recall the summer of 2021, the Biden administration tried to declare victory over COVID, and nearly every state and city ended its restrictions. Then the Delta wave hit (that’s the small bump last summer), followed by the Omicron wave. The end of Omicron is causing Democrats to return, for better or worse, to their pre-Delta policy.
It’s certainly fair to question the public-health choices Democratic officials have made. I’ve done so myself. But the right seems unable to believe Democrats are even making an attempt, however misguided, to protect the public. Instead, they insist on seeing every public-health announcement as a secret plot.
Interestingly, the contours of the alleged plot keep changing. In 2020, their prevailing theory was that Democrats were pushing for lockdowns in order to defeat Donald Trump. Here is how Carlson explained the theory in July:
Democrats have a strong incentive, therefore, to inflict as much pain as they can, and that’s what they are doing.
On that day, March 3, more than 40 percent of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction. And for the Biden campaign, that number was way too high. Then within a week, higher education began to shut down, and life really started to change for many people. Hundreds of thousands of idle college-age kids returned home. Stores began to empty; hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies disappeared. On March 12, the National Hockey League canceled its season; Major League Baseball followed suit. They ended spring training. Suddenly, there were no sports. Movie theaters closed, so did bowling alleys. And yet, still 40 percent of Americans continued to believe that their country was headed in the right direction, and that was bad news for the Joe Biden campaign. So then came the shutdowns. The CDC recommended canceling all public events with more than 50 people present. Public schools closed, so did bars, restaurants, gyms, and churches. Critically, millions lost their jobs when businesses were shuttered. The unemployment rate rose to the highest level in nearly a century. Now at the time, they told us that mass quarantines were essential. They were a public-health measure. We were saving lives with our suffering. Most people wanted to believe that because most Americans are decent people. But as summer approached, it became clear that the people telling us that were lying. Science had nothing to do with this …
The coronavirus lockdowns were revealed to be capricious and transparently political.
Once Biden won the election, Carlson’s theory predicted the administration would quickly relax its restrictions, since it no longer had an incentive to hurt people. When this didn’t happen, Carlson simply introduced a new sinister motive — Democrats were using the pandemic as a “chance to impose unprecedented social controls on the population in order to bypass democracy and change everything to conform with their weird academic theories that have never been tested in the real world and, by the way, don’t actually make sense.”
The scheme was supposedly to keep these restrictions in place forever to carry out Democrats’ nefarious agenda of totalitarian social control. Now the restrictions are ending, but rather than revise their theory, the right has substituted a different nefarious motive.
This is the sort of analysis that is produced by minds that cannot grasp the possibility public officials are ever trying — in the clumsy way they often operate — to advance the public interest. They see every issue as a zero-sum tribal conflict. Projecting their own venality onto their enemies, they can only imagine how they themselves would act in the same circumstance. When the right wing says government is nursing public health as a pretext to hold power, they’re admitting this is how they believe government should work.