Protests against stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus have exposed a deep skepticism of both the federal government and public health officials.
(CN) — The United States was founded on the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But have we gotten to a point where those values are putting the greater public at risk and hampering this country’s response to Covid-19?
Dozens of civil rights lawsuits have been filed throughout the country since local and state governments issued stay-at-home orders designed to “flatten the curve.” Armed protestors, some triggered by angry tweets from President Donald Trump, have stormed state capitols demanding a return to normal life despite the advice from medical professionals.
Has this pandemic exposed an economic desperation and cultural rift that threatens democracy entirely?
Distrust of the Government and Experts
The lawsuits and protests are the result of long-simmering political tension.
“For decades, the right has been fueling a hostility to government that has bread real and deep distrust among Americans on the right to what government, not just what government does, but who the people in government are,” said Johann Neem, an author and a history professor at Western Washington University. “In that sense, there is that idea of ‘leave me alone’ that is being expressed from the right.”
Neem is quick to point out that the political right doesn’t have the monopoly on distrust of authority. The left has traditionally sparked counterculture movements, the most recent being The Black Lives Matter campaign.
However, the undercurrent of the current protests from the right has exposed a distrust not only of government, but also of professors, public health officials, environmental experts, journalists and others whom society has traditionally respected.
“There’s a deeper question of who has authority and does the sort of knowledge experts have is authority that should be listened to?” Neem said. “That question is fueling an anti-government sentiment. And the people who are protesting feel that the authority should lie with their interests and somehow the government is opposed to them because it is listening to other people who can’t be trusted.”
Inconsistent messages from the Trump administration has fueled this distrust.
Wendy Parmet, who directs the Center for Health Policy and Law at the Northeastern University Law School, believes the country has moved heavily towards the individualistic spectrum. It has led to decades of a thinning of the public sector, especially in the health field, leaving the country vulnerable.
While it is impossible to put exact numbers to it, hyper-partisanship has compromised the United States’ response to Covid-19.
“The president is saying one thing and his own task force is saying another thing and the CDC is saying another thing, and really what is a human being supposed to know or do?” Parmet said. “I don’t think we can discount the importance of the confusion of the messaging and the fact that even what is said on Monday is inconsistent with what is said on Monday night on Twitter.”
She added, “If there was ever a moment we needed to come together and put our individualism aside … roll up our sleeves and do the best that we can with the best information we have, I think this is that moment.”
The Myth of American Individualism
Make America Great Again — it is either an inspirational rally cry or a racist insult, depending on one’s political leanings.
What isn’t in doubt is the phrase’s intent, to harken back to a time when the United States was the standard bearer for freedom. A place ripe with opportunity, where hard work and individual ingenuity was rewarded. A place where a man could pick himself up from his bootstraps and live the American Dream.
But did that place ever exist?
“There is a tradition that the United States was a nation conceived in respecting the dignity of individual human beings and their liberties,” Neem said. “Where the fiction comes in is the idea is that those liberties are self-fulfilling.”
The professor pointed out that government social justice programs have always been the silent fuel behind the idea of American individualism.
Americans can’t educate themselves without learning to read in schools. They couldn’t buy land if there is no land to legally own. Farmers couldn’t get their crops to market if government wasn’t there to improve rivers, make trade agreements and establish a railroad and later a highway system.
“We’ve sort of forgotten that behind the scenes, it’s strong capable government that enables us to do the kind of work we wanted to, to actually do the kinds of things that are essential to our freedom,” Neem said. “Because they are often hidden, we’ve allowed ourselves to have this idea of American individualism, but now we’re starting to see the costs of that.”
While many argue the Trump administration has exacerbated the problem — by, for example, dismantling the nation’s pandemic task force — the reality is government institutions have been in a slow decay over several decades due to lack of investment.
That decay has left Americans who still have that sense of individualism without support or a safety net.
“What has happened is the deeper trust that allows us to see ourselves as one community is lost,” Neem said. “That we’re all part of this larger thing called America and therefore we have a much harder time feeling empathetic to the sufferings of others. We have a harder time wanting to pay taxes that might go to others, we have a harder time believing that the other side’s perspective comes from a place of honesty. That’s true across the political spectrum and that’s what’s dangerous.”
This lack of empathy is a driving force in the gap between the two sides in this pandemic.
Supporters of stay-at-home orders believe public health officials and view social distancing practices as life-saving measures, not for themselves but for the entire community.
Fueled by a healthy distrust of authority, opponents argue about the validity of numbers expressed by public health officials and believe a healthy economy is more important to ensure individual liberty.
The result is a lack of unity that could be a driving factor as to why the United States is by far the world leader in Covid-19 cases and deaths.
“Americans cherish their liberty more than perhaps we cherish solidarity and the communal well-being,” Parmet said. “We tend to see health problems in very individualistic way. I think one of the things that has troubled me in looking at some of the protests and some of the protests signs is that people are having trouble understanding they are being asked to stay at home, not for themselves, but for others.
She continued, “You see people [saying], ‘it’s my choice, it’s my health right.’ No. It’s actually not about your health. It’s about the health of somebody in your town who you don’t even know.”
Health care has been a hot-button topic in the U.S. for at least a decade, since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Covid-19 has exposed the downside to an attitude of efficiency towards the health care system that has led to the layoffs of thousands of health care workers in the heart of the pandemic.
“Politicians on both sides of the aisle wanted our health system to be efficient,” Parmet said. “You know what efficient means? It means don’t pack away for a rainy day. Don’t keep extra PPE in your closest. It means just in time. It means if there’s no gallbladder operations or hip replacements we’re out of money. Our system is not set up for a public health problem.”
“It’s always been problematic and some of us have been writing about it for decades,” she added. “There are hardly words to express the absurdity and horror that our health care system is laying off our health care workers while in the midst of a pandemic.”
In a broader scope, the pandemic has exposed a boiling culture war within America that propelled the divisive Trump to the Oval Office.
Hyper-partisanship that is fed by a 24-hour news cycle, social media and a constant barrage of presidential tweets has left groups on both sides viewing the other as not fully American.
“That’s the divide that scares me,” Neem said. “So, I think part of what’s happening in these protests is who is a true American and who gets to speak for us? And the government doesn’t, and those people don’t, and I think the left does some of this as well, and that’s what makes this a dangerous moment for democracy. But I think we’re seeing a lot of it on the right and its being spurred by our president.”
In this light, basic facts are distorted by heavy partisanship. It is nearly impossible to find common ground on ways to improve the health system or anything else, including a uniform response to Covid-19.
“Because of all these factors that have produced the moment that led to the election of Donald Trump, we have a president who is not just hostile to Democrats in a way that makes it very difficult to work with them, but you have a president who doesn’t trust his advisers, the longtime civil servants,” Neem said. “Even the capacity we have has been undermined by the ways in which anti-government, anti-expert ideas that are not just Donald Trump’s, but that Donald Trump was elected in part because he expresses, have made America’s response less coherent and less effective.”
Parmet added, “This pandemic is shining a light on every weakness, every fracture, every fissure in this country. It’s exposing it in bright lights and making it worse and all of those pre-existing fractures and fissures and weaknesses are making us more vulnerable. This is just the perfect awful storm.”
Religious freedom challenges have fueled some of the lawsuits.
While a vast majority of churches have adhered to government orders and have switched to online services, some church leaders, especially Evangelicals, claim that isn’t enough to fully partake in the sacraments. A few churches have even completely ignored social distancing orders, claiming God would protect worshippers.
John Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and author of the book, “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” said the Christian right rose in the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to the belief that government was intruding on believers’ right to worship as they chose.
That distrust is manifesting itself Covid-19-related lawsuits.
“I think there are a small number of examples who are not willing to close and are making the religious freedom argument and those are the cases that are getting the attention,” Fea said. “They’re not fearful of the coronavirus, because they are saying they can pray through it or God will protect us, but I think the fear is much more … a fear of government.
He continued, “God can help them through the coronavirus, God can protect them from this disease, but somehow that faith doesn’t translate into whatever persecution they think they’re suffering. They’re afraid of government intervening in their lives. It’s not that the disease will get them.”
Fea, who is an Evangelical himself, said Evangelicals have a long history of being doers for the public good and were even instrumental in the civil rights movement. That mindset has served them well in spreading the gospel of Jesus while serving others.
But Fea believes a long tradition of anti-intellectualism is fueling distrust among the sects of ultra-conservative Evangelicals who are refusing to adhere to stay-at-home orders.
“Faith conquers science,” Fea said. “Faith always conquers reason. If you have a choice of listening to science or God always listen to God because they haven’t thought through that you can believe in God and in science. It’s just very binary thinking and binary thinking is a lack of a nuance of thinking, a lack of complexity of thinking, it is the mark of anti-intellectual populism.”
The Christian right has influenced white Evangelicals to side with Trump because of his anti-abortion position. Ultra-conservative news outlets have helped fuel the belief that Trump is protecting Christian rights, even if many of his policy decisions seem to be in direct contradiction to the Christian faith, which has fed a distrust among white Evangelicals against those who are critical of the president.
Trump carried more than 80% of the white Evangelical vote in 2016. Fea doesn’t expect that to change in 2020.
“The way the politics are working right now, it is very hard to understand Evangelicals’ response to the way Trump is handling the coronavirus without thinking about this in the larger context of being in an election year,” Fea said. “If Trump goes, all of a sudden there goes your conservative justices, there goes your playbook in terms of abortion, that’s all gone. So as much as Evangelicals may be bothered by the way Trump has handled the coronavirus, they aren’t going to say anything because Trump carries the torch on issues such as abortion, religious liberty and so forth.”
The lawsuits bring forth an age-old question regarding civil rights: where do the rights of an individual end within the context of the community good?
Lawrence Gostin, a constitutional and global health law expert at Georgetown University, wrote in an email, “As long as the orders apply equally to all, there should be no First Amendment issues. Government may not single out any particular viewpoint or religious belief for special treatment, but if it neutrally acts for the public’s health, there are strong constitutional powers to enable government to close unsafe businesses.”
Scott Burris, a public health law expert at Temple University, believes the Covid-19 pandemic presents the first opportunity for modern courts to apply the case precedent of Jacobson vs. Massachusetts, a 1905 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws.
Burris believes that ruling clearly gives states and cities the authority to take emergency measures that are reasonable and necessary to prevent the spread of a deadly disease.
“I am in the camp that interprets Jacobson to have teeth, such that if a plaintiff can make a case that the measure is discriminatory or unnecessary given a plainly less restrictive or scientifically better justified alternative, the court should side with the plaintiff,” Burris wrote in an email. “For the moment, I think the measures taken, though the result of earlier failures of control, are still within the zone of deference to government judgments about what is necessary.”
Constitutional or not, the lawsuits and protests related to this pandemic have exposed a widening gap within American society that involves economic, political, religious and cultural currents. That gap could have long-term consequences.
Neem believes the ingredients are there to create a crisis within the country’s democracy.
“I think the fact that we have allowed more and more Americans to remain economically stagnant or even worse, to lose economic ground, has created a space where people feel desperate,” the professor said. “And you put those two things together and you see kind of a populist reaction that unfortunately is fueled with negative energy and we have a moment where people – including people in Washington, D.C. – are more committed to winning than they are committed to the democratic process and norms.”
“That reflects a complete break-down in the kind of trust we need in each other and the capacity to work together, even when we disagree, that a democracy depends on,” he said.