It takes a lot to make a libertarian look forward to the next election.
Like, say, two years of miserable government mandates ignored by some of the very people imposing them. Like watching over 70,000 maskless adults (and many celebrities) partying at a major sporting event in a city where children are required to wear medical-grade masks to school and keep them on while playing sports. Like imposing border controls on immigration and travel meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, and then keeping them in place (with no off-ramp) long after the virus is spreading here.
For once, we can be thankful that another election season is already upon us since politics is the last realm where the pandemic is dominating decision-making. The economy emerged from the omicron wave in better shape than expected. Sunday's Super Bowl was the latest signal that lots of Americans are done with the health theatrics of the past two years. But even the political class' commitment to COVID policy is wavering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and President Joe Biden might be refusing to offer much hope that COVID-related mandates should be lifted soon, but they are increasingly being undone by rank-and-file Democrats who are looking at favorability ratings that are falling nearly as fast as COVID case counts.
In New York, for example, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul announced last week that businesses will no longer be required to enforce masking of unvaccinated customers. California's indoor mask mandate will expire this week, even though some local governments will keep similar rules in place—Sunday's Super Bowl was supposedly subject to Los Angeles' mandate, though you wouldn't have known that from shots of the overwhelmingly unmasked crowd seen on television.
Schools are finally easing up on mask rules that never made much sense since children are generally not at risk of serious illness from COVID. Connecticut's school masking mandate will end later this month, and New Jersey's will follow suit on March 7. Delaware's is set to end at the end of March. In all three cases, the orders came from Democratic governors in blue states.
But a more telling example of the sentiment sweeping the country came from Virginia, where the Democratic-controlled state Senate voted 29–9 last week to let parents decide whether their kids wear masks in school, regardless of what policies local school boards might have in place. Given how closely support for mask mandates have mapped onto partisan alliances over the past year or so, that's a resoundingly bipartisan statement.
On Monday, the state House passed the bill as well, sending it to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's desk. He is expected to sign it.
Politics are always downstream of culture, and all democratic systems are ultimately grounded in the will of the people. In the American system, the people don't often get to make decisions directly—instead, elections act as a sort of feedback system for those in power. You can pretty much do whatever you want after getting elected, but eventually (every two or four or six years) you'll have to face the voters again.
The pandemic helped expose what happens when that feedback system is disrupted, as governors in many states seized on emergency power statutes to cut the legislature out of the pandemic-rulemaking process.
Some might argue that's a benefit, not a flaw. Government must respond to a crisis quickly and there might not be time for legislative deliberation.
That's true, to a point. Two years in, we're no longer in a crisis. We're in a situation that can be addressed via the regular functioning of democratic government. And when the system is allowed to work as intended, and policy makers who have to face reelection on a regular basis (as state lawmakers do) face the prospect of voting for or against mandatory masking in schools—well, just look at what happened in Virginia.
Or look at the polls. A survey from Monmouth University released on January 31 found that 70 percent of Americans (and 47 percent of Democrats) agreed that "it's time we accept COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives." The same poll found that support for vaccine mandates has dropped by 10 percent since September of last year, while support for social distancing requirements (like limiting capacity in indoor settings) was down 11 percent over the same period. Those trends seem likely to continue as omicron vanishes into the rearview mirror and warmer weather arrives.
Just 38 percent of likely voters view COVID-19 as "a public health emergency," according to a January poll from Echelon Insights, while 55 percent said it "should be treated as an endemic disease that will never fully go away."
Those polls and the looming midterms have Democrats searching "for a new message" on the pandemic in advance of the midterms, The New York Times reported last month. The party is "keenly aware that Americans—including even some of the party's loyal liberal voters—have changed their attitudes about the virus and that it could be perilous to let Republicans brand the Democrats the party of lockdowns and mandates."
Getting in the way of that new message, however, is the same tendency that's tripped up government responses to the pandemic since it began: engaging in social psychology, rather than simply delivering the facts and trusting the public to make their own decisions.
That's accomplished two things. Some people feel, probably correctly, like they're being manipulated by ever-changing government messaging and simply tune it all out. Others have adopted a devout, almost religious response to public health authorities' exhortations—complete with moral condemnations of those who don't feel the same way. Neither is ideal if the goal is to collectively combat a deadly disease and the predictable result is the heightened politicization of every aspect of pandemic response.
But they're still doing it. "We are moving toward a time when Covid doesn't disrupt our daily lives," an anonymous senior administration official told Politico last week. "But in order to get people to view the pandemic differently, they have to feel differently about the pandemic."
This might be news to the Biden administration, but most Americans seem to have already changed how they "feel" about the pandemic. Yes, even liberals and even residents of urban areas. Just look at all those cheering fans at the Super Bowl, blatantly and nonchalantly disregarding the rules. That attitude is now working its way downstream with alacrity. Some Democrats, like Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, were ahead of the curve, and others are finally getting the message.
It's possible that these changes in COVID policy are being driven by, as they say, following the science. Case counts are falling and the promise of warmer weather is right around the corner in much of the country. Maybe Democrats aren't playing politics at all, and are merely adjusting strategies as the circumstances dictate?
Be skeptical of that conclusion: Biden doesn't have to face reelection until 2024. The CDC never has to go before the voters. But state and local lawmakers are being more responsive to the emerging will of the people, who are increasingly indicating—both in polls and in their behavior—that they've had enough masking and restrictions.
That's the democratic system working as it is intended.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.