It’s a truism that there are at least two sides to every argument. But it does not necessarily follow that those two sides are equal either in substantive weight or public appeal.
These pages and our television screens, to say nothing of social media, are chock full of clashes over the pace of reopenings, mask mandates and all manner of issues related to this phase of the COVID public health response.
Fortunately, most of these are wars of words only, fully in keeping with our rich American tradition of free speech and public dissension. But, increasingly, words are being replaced by actions, whether in the form of restaurants defying closure orders, gun-toting protesters showing up at state capitol buildings, or unveiled Facebook threats of civil war.
Fear is powerful and pandemics across the ages have not always brought out the best in human charity and compassion. In the face of a deadly, invisible contagion, and with the best defense being to keep others at a distance, “me” has often triumphed over “we.”
Further, this response requires patience — a quality that is not always a hallmark of our society.
The word most often recited in these protests, both the actual gatherings and the rhetorical grenades, is “tyranny”. Which the dictionary defines as “cruel or oppressive government or rule.”
That is such an exaggerated claim, unfounded on the merits and counterproductive as a political message.
There is no questioning on this end of the economic metrics or the individual stories of devastation. Those of us who are more comfortable and less susceptible to this upheaval need to understand the breadth of the economic loss and the depth of the personal pain.
(On that score, an acknowledgement. In a column early in this crisis, I critiqued “the cure is worse than the disease” line of thinking and commented that the economic rebound could be just as dramatic as the downturn. I’ll have to assign that erroneous assessment to wishful thinking as there is less doubt with each passing week that it will take a good while to dig out of this economic hole. Some sectors will regain strength faster than others but the notion of a sharp, V-shaped recovery is less and less likely.)
However deep and damaging the economic consequences, the causation rests with the virus, not with government actions much less “tyranny.” It is the pathogen that is dictating the economic havoc. To instead, conveniently, blame the public response is wildly off the mark.
Whatever the political differences, show me one governor or mayor who wants the economy to tank and tax coffers to dry up.
Ironically and sadly, those who are making a show of violating public health orders are serving to extend the closures and shutdowns instead of cutting them short. Think, for instance, of the less-than-stellar crowd gathered close together sans masks on Mother’s Day at the now-shuttered bakery in Castle Rock. Did that moment of feel-good independence and sticking-it-to-the-man lessen the spread of the virus or risk greater proliferation?
Of course, government action should be put under a microscope. That is especially true in extraordinary circumstances when such emergency response exceeds usual bounds. Not all policies have equal backing or impact. For example, mask requirements have demonstrated upside in closed, indoor places even if they are far from a total preventative. In an outdoor setting of abundant space, any benefit is quite marginal.
But, again, it is the disease that is in the driver’s seat, not the decrees. Take Jared Polis completely out of the equation and I dare say that darn few of us would be sitting in a packed restaurant or movie theater or ballpark or concert hall anytime soon.
To the politics, public opinion is simply not with those on the front lines of protest and outrage. Polling in Colorado and across the country shows that even among Republicans, mask requirements and a slower approach to reopenings are favored by margins upward of two-to-one. Among Democrats and unaffiliated voters, the margins are even higher.
We are a nation perpetually and angrily divided. But on this issue at least, that divide is far from equal.
By training and instinct, reporters tend to give equivalent weight to both sides of the argument. One paragraph pro; one paragraph con. That’s fair but loses sight of indicator after indicator showing public sentiment solidly behind bold action to safeguard public health.
For further evidence, look at the political fortunes of governors of both parties who have moved aggressively on the COVID crisis versus those who have been more timid and laissez faire. Among Democratic governors, Polis has embraced cautious resumptions on a faster timeline than most of his peers.
Culture wars require culture warriors. In this case, often fanned by presidential tweets, the call has been answered by libertarian-leaning conservatives. Their conundrum is that their populist cries of tyranny lack popular resonance.
This has led to a rhetorical escalation that is more and more out of sync with a guarded and frightened public. A week ago, one Denver radio talker, seemingly reasonable and personable off-air, equated mask mandates with Holocaust-era orders for Jews to wear a yellow star on their chest. The fact that this radio personality lost ancestors to the Nazi madness, as did my family, made the analogy no less wacky and off-key.
Add to this my usual rule of politics that whichever side first reaches for the Nazi card is most often losing the argument.
With a highly contagious virus already ripping at our fabric, perhaps it is extra important to be careful with the discourse and not do more to tear ourselves apart. Instead of one more political and cultural flashpoint, might this historic challenge be a healing touchpoint?
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His column appears regularly on Sundays in ColoradoPolitics. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann