Over Memorial Day weekend, some families made their way to America’s beaches and ambled up and down the sand or the boardwalk. In a few parts of the country — famously, in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri — dozens of young adults gathered for the sort of pool party that traditionally marks the beginning of summer.
The austere giants of American media seemed to think the story was that a few people were having fun in public amid a pandemic. Reporters from the grayest old newspapers, the biggest worldwide wires, and the massive, most lucrative networks scolded and cursed the transgressors for enjoying the outdoors near one another.
Journalism is called the first, rough draft of history. Newspaper and internet reporting, however, are inevitably more myopic. When the history of summer 2020 is told decades down the road, the story of its opening days will not be a story of reckless boardwalk walkers or pool partiers risking the coronavirus. It will be either a summer of liberation from a bizarre and unprecedented lockdown of daily life or, if the lockdowns do not fade away, it will be the summer that never happened.
Those who did go to the beaches and the boardwalks on Memorial Day were venturing out for the first time since March. They found the boardwalk rides and attractions closed. Neighborhood pools in thousands of neighborhoods were still shuttered on their traditional opening weekend, as were country clubs across America.
The history of this spring and summer will be told by the lacunae on plaques outside high school gyms — the year with no title game, no batting champion, no top goal scorer, no wins or losses. This will be the May and June when we didn’t have NBA championships or graduations. The disruption to our daily lives is a once-in-a-generation event today’s schoolchildren will tell years from now to their incredulous children.
Yet griping and typing from their laptops at home, reporters and commentators think the story is that a few folks, after months in obedient isolation, might have broken the rules in so many places. The real story is that for so long, so many followed the draconian rules imposed by so few.
Indeed, it would have been unthinkable a few months back that state and county governments would or could scrunch the lives of 325 million people into the confines of their own homes.
Yet a few hundred people — governors, state health officials, some county executives — suddenly gained control over the lives of millions, down to the microscopic level.
It became a crime for your church to hold a service. Visiting your parents might violate the law. Having a family over for a barbeque became illegal.
Suddenly, the things that were too quotidian even to cherish as “freedoms” were taken away. They were taken away, not by some armed revolution, as when Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads in Parliament canceled Christmas in 1644, but by the joint decisions of a handful of state-level officials.
The power over everyone’s daily lives wielded by so few is probably unprecedented in our nation’s history.
Of course, we are all taught in school about the unity of purpose during World War II. Families grew victory gardens and bought war bonds. Our grandparents or great-grandparents all went along with blackout drills, loved FDR, and tolerated rationing and price controls.
But the experience of the American homefront during the war was certainly more complicated, as is the analogy to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not a popular idea in our materialistic age, which regards death as the ultimate evil, but it’s at least arguable that stopping the march of two racist, murderous, evil empires was a more noble cause than “flattening the curve.”
Since V-J Day, at least in the minds of nearly every living American, dissent has been patriotic, and civil disobedience has been the stuff of our greatest heroes. The American Revolution, abolition, the civil rights movement, and all the stories we tell of America’s growth as a country highlight people who refused to do as they were told. The American is the cowboy, the maverick, the disobedient citizen.
Once, I visited Germany and met with a government minister who told a very brief history of Europe: The continent was once populated with two kinds of people. Some Europeans followed the rules, stayed out of trouble, and did as they were told, she said; other Europeans were free spirits, rascals, and innovators. One day, the latter kind all got on a boat and moved to America.
To this day in Berlin, you will not see Germans cross against a light, even if no cars are in sight. Americans, in contrast, buck under such a bridle.
Yet that defining trait seemed to evaporate when the pandemic hit.
Around the world, dictators who have gained control over their people’s lives have relied on scapegoating, religious fundamentalism, or sheer terror and force. Today, governors and state and local health officials temporarily put their citizens on near-house arrest, mostly wielding “Science!”
“I operate on the data and on the numbers and on the science,” media darling Andrew Cuomo said around the same time he sent coronavirus patients off to nursing homes, where they triggered mass death. “Follow the data, follow the science, let the professionals tell us when it’s safe to reopen,” the New York governor said. “When it comes to re-opening, SCIENCE — not politics — must be California’s guide,” wrote California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
We know what the governors are doing, and it’s mostly harmless. When politicians pledge fealty to “SCIENCE” again and again, they are playing identity politics. They know that a significant portion of the Democratic base walks around clad in a self-image of science-grounded, reality-based “nerds.” You can tell the signaling worked because of the small rash of liberal commentators declaring their crushes on Cuomo or Newsom for their coronavirus briefings.
But underneath the harmless flexing, the constant invocation of “SCIENCE over politics” ought to be at least a little bit worrying. If science were what politicians pretend it is (ontological certainty yielded by researchers with advanced degrees), it could justify the most onerous intrusions on liberty and disregard for democracy — all for your own good, of course.
“SCIENCE” is the perfect excuse to squash individual choice, because it is a special knowledge possessed by the few and handed, as a saber, to powerful men such as Cuomo and Newsom.
Actual science, as done by scientists, is a realm of uncertainty, best guesses, and constant updating and testing of hypotheses. But combine the politicians’ idea of “SCIENCE” with their hunger for power, and you get what we’ve gotten since March: the Land of the Free placed under stay-at-home orders by a few dozen public servants acting with the power of dictators and the certainty of surgeons but the empirical backing of, well, not much.
Lockdowns were, to borrow the terms of contemporary medicine, an unproven intervention. Nobody had established either the safety or the efficacy of closing schools, closing restaurants, removing basketball hoops, cordoning off playgrounds, banning fishing, banning reading on park benches, banning gatherings of more than 10, forcing millions to work from home, banning elective surgeries, shuttering main street — for three months — and sending 15% of our workforce into unemployment.
The scientists and the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration would never allow doctors to prescribe widely a pharmaceutical so untested. Yet almost in unison in mid-March, after British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson at the Imperial College put out a scary study predicting millions of U.S. deaths and after Tom Hanks was diagnosed with the virus, most governors and state health officials prescribed lockdowns and then kept them in place through May.
There’s some evidence the lockdowns were a bad idea. We know that they caused some harm in addition to alleviating some other harm. But more important is to note how ambitious the lockdowns were, and how sparse the public debate or input was.
In a democracy, putting “SCIENCE over politics” usually means subverting democracy.
Certainly, nobody ran for office on the platform of “I will close your schools and restaurants.” There was no debate in most places. State lawmakers didn’t consider lockdown or quarantine bills in their legislative bodies. There were no floor debates about closing restaurants or amendments about whether to allow outdoor seating. There weren’t recorded votes before these unprecedented government actions to lock down commerce and society.
Governors relied on emergency powers, which itself isn’t unprecedented. But emergency powers are usually limited in duration and location. Amid the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber, for instance, local transit was shut down, residents were evacuated or locked in their homes, and businesses were shut down. But that was a local reaction that lasted for a couple of days and had a very discrete aim: catching a killer.
This killer isn’t catchable, unlike the sickness with which it kills. So during the pandemic, governors unilaterally made new crimes, such as leisurely fishing on an empty bank, and closed thousands of businesses and schools, imposing their new rules for months at a time.
Heading into summer 2020, many officials warned that no “all clear” siren was coming. We had to adapt to a “new normal.” Presumably, that will include customs and rules targeted at slowing the spread of the virus, such as eschewing handshakes or hugs, shortening church services, or moving more things outdoors. Surely, the “new normal” will also include persistent regulations on building occupancy limits and on sanitation and hygiene.
We need to worry, though, that the new normal will be a handful of government officials making sweeping rules to micromanage our daily lives.
Timothy P. Carney is the senior political columnist at the Washington Examiner and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse , The Big Ripoff , and Obamanomics .