DANIEL VAUGHAN: Politicians continue to lag behind the American people

Government policies often lag human behavior. Nowhere is that more evident than in the coronavirus pandemic.

By the time most state governments started talking about sheltering in place, most Americans had already started reorganizing their entire lives. “It was not media-induced panic but common sense that modified American behavior,” columnist Matthew Continetti wrote last week. The people chose to shelter in place, and after much consternation, the government followed their lead.

Why the government shutdowns? Those are for the margins of any society who reject mainstream beliefs, no matter what those beliefs happen to be. Only 20% of Americans would return to all their old activities immediately if given the choice, according to Gallup polling. That means they’d head to a restaurant, a crowded party, or some other event, even with no social distancing.

Twenty percent is a distinct minority, but it’s not something to ignore either.

The protests against harsh policies imposed in recent weeks are wrong on the merits of the virus. This virus is deadly and demands action. And most Americans would agree with that point — that’s why the protests are so small.

But the politicians in these states are also misreading their mandates. They’re trying to impose more draconian measures than other states to show they have “taken action” to curb the virus.

Most of their citizens were taking action before these governors and state legislatures had drafted a single policy, however. When these governors then go beyond what their own people are doing, trying to gain some credit for actions they had little impact in, they’re chipping away at any political trust they may have had.

Americans have a long history of being willing to step up to the plate and help out their neighbors when events demand it. They have less patience with politicians arriving late to those same decisions.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who has bizarrely become a national star amid the pandemic, made waves when she ordered stores last week to rope off gardening supplies, deeming these items “unessential.” People in Michigan are now being denied access to items that would allow them to grow their own food, which doubles as a cathartic exercise in a stressful time.

PolitiFact quickly ran to Whitmer’s defense, claiming that she did not “prohibit gardening or the sale of any particular product,” but only required stores to close those sections off. To PolitiFact, this distinction is important, and allowed them to defend the Democrat by arguing that Michiganders’ complaints are simply “false.”

Somehow, they want you to believe that if a store blocks off those items, you aren’t being prohibited from buying them. Such spin is the state of “facts” in the coronavirus era.

This brings us back to these protests. Heavy-handed tactics and a national press eager to defend such practices — we’re all in this together, you know — have led to such demonstrations. America has a natural aversion to petty tyrants trying to organize every area of our lives — especially when they’ve already taken many of the requisite actions without instruction from politicians. It’s natural at this point for some Americans to question what is happening.

Are all of these protests in good faith? Far from it. Some of these protesters are just flat out rejecting reality and the dangers of the virus. Their demands, of course, should be ignored, just as most Americans are ignoring them. It’s in a similar vein to how most Americans dismiss conspiracy theories about 9/11, but there’s still a stubborn 15% who reject that reality too.

But the complaints of ever-tightening restrictions from state leaders do deserve an open ear. Arresting people at drive-in Easter church services and roping off gardening supplies while claiming you’ve prohibited nothing are bad political decisions. If we truly are in this together, then it makes sense to maintain a level of empathy toward those hurting amid this crisis.

For some people, the economic consequences of this shutdown hit closer to home than the virus. For others, the shadow of a deadly virus has impacted them personally. Listening to both is essential.

Politicians who tighten their fists to try and consolidate control over a state during this time fail the empathy test. We live in a representative liberal democracy that depends on the consent of the governed to continue. Pushing the outer bands of what most people consider reasonable, even during a pandemic, invites pushback. That’s not something we need in the middle of a pandemic.

Fortunately, the bad actions we’re talking about here are a limited subset of the country with bad leadership. A crisis, especially of the pandemic variety, exposes bad leadership in many ways. And what we’re seeing from the bad politicians is a form of elite panic. Also, fortunately, the American people do not seem to be panicking, and most politicians are simply following the lead of the people they govern.

There will be plenty of time to learn from all the mistakes on the backside of this pandemic. Until then, it’s good to learn that the American public has managed to keep its head at a time when some of its leaders are not, toilet paper shortages notwithstanding.