That’s what it is, and that is what we are living through—an American tragedy.
Politics in America works best when it is, essentially, transactional; we get this, and they get that, and the country, in the process, gets something done. Traditionally, Americans who identified as Republicans were for lower taxes, free trade, and minimal government intrusion into the lives of the people and the country’s institutions. Democrats tended to favor government programs they believed improved the lives and working conditions of Americans. One Party leaned toward activist government, the other toward minimalist government. Republicans generally did not like regulations. Democrats tended to favor greater government oversight of business.
All of that is entirely rational. The people sometimes would vote Republican, and sometimes they might vote Democrat. There was, traditionally, give and take, and on balance, the country progressed– sometimes more slowly or more rapidly than at other times, but, on balance, we progressed.
When identity politics replaces rational politics, as is the case today, one’s political party becomes one’s team rather than an expression of one’s leaning. When, during a public health crisis, a party’s leadership decides that resisting federal leadership is a winning issue, and the party’s rank and file follow suit, then identity politics rules the day. Individual rational thought is jettisoned while the rank and file wait to see what position the party takes.
And so, today, an astounding swath of the nation’s Republicans embrace the notion that Trump won the 2020 election because Trump told them so, that January 6th was no big deal, that wearing masks is a matter of personal choice, and, to an astounding extent, they have resisted vaccines, notwithstanding the devastating cost the anti-vaccinators are imposing on the country.
With identity politics, both Democrat and Republican party leaders often take positions simply because they constantly search for combat rather than compromise. Today, this is playing out on an immense scale as the country confronts the raging coronavirus pandemic–no mandates for masks or vaccinations, say the Republicans. There is to be no intrusion into the individual’s right to decide what they or their children may or may not do during a public health crisis. This is identity politics on steroids.
Imagine where we would be today if another generation of politicians decided to draw battle lines over requiring vaccines for smallpox, polio, chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Even something as simple as mandating the wearing of masks during a highly contagious pandemic has, ridiculously, emerged as a raging issue.
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Governor and presidential wannabe is playing his identity politics hand like a poker player who thinks he’s about to draw a royal flush. Or, perhaps, more to the point, like a politician who believes he can make resisting something as benign and sensible as wearing masks during a highly contagious and dangerous pandemic into a hallmark of Republican political identity.
That the pandemic is raging in Florida like no other state is, it seems, of little concern to DeSantis. He has threatened to withhold funding for schools requiring masks. His argument isn’t about public health and safety, but rather about the rights of parents to decide whether their children should or should not wear masks. This is, to him, about Republicans versus Democrats, anti-mask Republicans against pro-mask Democrats. It is identity politics at its worst.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker has mandated that masks will be required in all public and private schools following a rapid 10-fold increase in COVID infections in the state, and a rapid doubling of demand for intensive care in Illinois hospitals. As expected in this era of identity politics, Republican political operatives fell over themselves protesting the Governor’s mandate. Former Illinois State Sen. Paul Schimpf, a GOP candidate for governor, proclaimed with a straight face, the governor’s school mask mandate “usurps the authority of parents, school board members, and superintendents, further undermining confidence in the rule of law. I vehemently disagree with Governor Pritzker’s action today.”
Not to be outdone, Illinois Republican State Senator Darren Bailey, of downstate Xenia, in high dudgeon fulminated, “Anyone who wants to force masks on children or force a vaccine is a tyrant. I will fight to my last breath for freedom and common-sense policies. Call your school board members and tell them to stand up. Local control matters. Your voice matters; mental health matters,” he wrote. Talk about identity politics!
Meanwhile, back in Florida, DeSantis is playing with fire. Listen to former US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, “This surge that we’re going through right now has every potential to be — and already looks to be — the worst surge we’ve faced so far.” The Delta variant, which represents a growing threat to school-age children and which now accounts for nearly 95% of all coronavirus circulating in the US, is hitting DeSantis’s state particularly hard.
School children are catching COVID, and cases requiring hospitalization in Florida have begun to soar. Last Tuesday alone, 46 pediatric patients were admitted to Florida hospitals with COVID. So far, 4 million have been diagnosed with the disease nationally, and the actual number is, of course, higher because kids are often asymptomatic. They or their parents may not know they have COVID, but the kids can spread it to their parents and grandparents just fine. 72,000 cases were diagnosed among kids during the last week in July, an 84% increase from the prior week, when about 39,000 cases were reported. But DeSantis, grandstanding for the identity politics crowd, says mask-wearing in our public schools should be left to the parents and not the public health authorities or the school administrators. DeSantis has also blocked any business, government entity, or school district from requiring proof of vaccination. Thank goodness he wasn’t around when the polio vaccine became available.
I hasten to add that not all Republicans are playing the identity politics card. As Mayland Governor Larry Hogan, addressing the nation’s anti-vaccine and anti-mask crowd warned this week, “I don’t care what misinformation or conspiracy theories that you have heard…You are the ones threatening the freedoms of all the rest of us…”
Identity politics is a bit of monkey see, monkey do, and it is all the rage today. It’s a killer, and it’s a great American tragedy.
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