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Conservative Austerity Created the Mask Wars

Decades of attacks on public programs have led us to a point where we’re arguing about personal responsibility in the midst of a pandemic.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Demonstrators at a pro-police rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 27

As coronavirus cases soared this week in a number of states—not a few of them red—a handful of GOP leaders and right-wing pundits had a desperate message for conservatives: Wear a mask, please. Mike Pence now wears a mask; Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who had previously blocked local governments from requiring masks, now calls them “your best defense against this virus”; Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, whom Donald Trump once ranked a 12 out of 10 in terms of loyalty, said recently, “I think that if the president wore one, it would just set a good example.” Even Trump himself, who has irresponsibly stoked anti-mask messaging for months, is now saying vaguely pro-mask things. The right’s about-face comes when the national coronavirus death toll is approaching 130,000. In such circumstances, wearing masks seems like literally the least anyone can do.  

It was a unique kind of American idiocy that produced the ongoing conflict over wearing masks in public, a culture war now captured forever in the dozens of videos of unmasked, aggrieved individuals trying to enter stores or protesting to reopen states. But if anti-mask tantrums of conspiracists or wing nuts attract the most attention, they’re ultimately just a symptom of something much more dangerous: the long-running erosion of public programs in the United States, which set the stage for a type of extreme individualism that extends to almost every aspect of American life today. Conservatives have spent decades shrinking the scope and efficacy of social welfare initiatives. Now the near-total abdication of the government during the pandemic has shifted even more responsibility for weathering the outbreak onto individuals, and the result is a vicious clash between pro- and anti-mask culture warriors. But that conflict over personal choices just underscores how our government has been designed to fail.

At least since Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address in which he declared, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Republicans (along with plenty of Democrats) have leaped to dismantle or weaken a range of federal and state-level programs constructed during the country’s New Deal and postwar eras, all while exhorting citizens to be proud that we’re almost completely on our own. As a result of that relentless assault, the already threadbare safety net has reached a breaking point during the pandemic. 

Thanks to conservatives’ painstaking efforts to weaken states’ unemployment insurance programs over the years (in some cases intentionally making it harder for people to apply for benefits), millions of laid-off workers struggled to access badly needed money as the economy cratered. Likewise, the lack of paid leave policies, both nationally and in most states, has forced countless people to make the impossible choice between their health and their jobs since the start of the outbreak. 

And, of course, the U.S. has nothing approaching a national health care system in the middle of the biggest public health crisis in a century. Though many—including Joe Biden—have argued that Medicare for All wouldn’t have prevented the spread of the coronavirus, it’s plain that the senselessness of chaining people’s health insurance to their jobs has created additional stress on people caught up in the twin crises of economic meltdown and the pandemic. (The federal government has promised to reimburse providers who treat uninsured Covid-19 patients, but that initiative has limitations.) 

As America’s intentionally weakened social safety net has frayed, Trump’s federal government has utterly failed to sufficiently expand testing or contact tracing, necessary ingredients of any successful effort to fight Covid. The administration was disorganized from the beginning of the pandemic and couldn’t even come up with a coherent plan for dealing with it. That left a patchwork of local and state governments and private institutions to fend for themselves in an environment so confused that they sometimes found themselves competing with the federal government for vital supplies. It’s no wonder, then, that the public have resorted to bickering among themselves. There is no one offering even minimal guidance, no sense of a shared goal—the things that we might ordinarily expect a government to provide. 

And while the calls for simply bootstrapping our way out of the pandemic have mostly come from Trump and his cronies, even critics of his administration have doubled down on a certain kind of individualism. “We can and should hold our leaders responsible, but ultimately, we have no one but ourselves to blame,” the former Republican commentator Max Boot wrote this week. “Nobody forced so many Americans to act so recklessly.” That’s true in a sense, but in other ways, the American public is being told to fend for itself and then being punished for it. As The Washington Post’s Helaine Olen put it in a recent piece on the outrage over people violating social distancing guidelines after months of lockdown, “We’re expecting individuals to compensate for government and societal failures, and then yelling at them when they fail to do so—and act like people instead.”

The lack of meaningful early intervention also means that at this point, with the mask wars well underway, any kind of national mask mandate would be a difficult thing to carry out, particularly given how the enforcement of social distancing rules has rather predictably resulted in the increased surveillance and policing of disproportionately Black and Latino residents. The longer we wait, the more the culture wars will escalate, and there seem to be few solutions for ending them on the table. Democrats, for their part, have advocated some basic federal protections like extending coronavirus unemployment benefits and initiating another round of stimulus payments. And Bernie Sanders recently floated what might be the closest thing to a de-escalation of the mask wars—a proposal for the government to simply manufacture and distribute free masks to everyone. Like so many of Sanders’s proposals, it seems reasonable and also nearly impossible to imagine the current government doing.