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Coronavirus in a Time of Partisanship

Several years ago, I walked down the hall of a university building and saw a nameplate on a door that read, “Center for the Study of War, History, and Civilization.” An impressive title, I thought; to grapple with such a wide swath of human affairs, the Center must have tremendous resources. Being curious, I opened the door and looked inside. I found only a small room (more like a large closet), with an old man sitting at a wooden desk and reading a book. Apparently, he was the Center. Rather than the Pentagon or RAND, the scene had more the air of a Dickensian watch shop. The contrast between the center’s name and its reality was comical.

I thought about this event while reading Danielle Allen’s Democracy in the Time of the Coronavirus. A Harvard political scientist with a background in classics, Dr. Allen has picked two enormous topics to pontificate on—coronavirus and democracy. By a mere stroke of her keyboard, she seems to imagine slaying the country’s confusion on both topics and fixing whatever problems surround them—all in a hundred pages. Yet she makes so many misleading statements about the coronavirus and speaks in such generalities about both coronavirus and democracy, that her book has little value. Hers is a pure picture painted by a creative mind, looking down from its unattainable heights upon the complicated and messy world below. It brings to mind the old man presuming to direct the world, its armies, its culture, and its fate from inside a university broom closet.

Masking Reality

Let’s start with the coronavirus. On the first page Dr. Allen bemoans how in March 2021, while finishing her book, the U.S. had the highest pandemic death toll in the world. This alone, she implies, demonstrates a failure of policy at the federal level. Yet the U.S. registered more deaths because it has a larger population than most countries—and also because it registered those deaths more honestly. At the time she was writing, the U.S. ranked thirteenth, not first, in deaths per capita worldwide, which is the more relevant statistic. Moreover, during the pandemic’s early months, half the coronavirus deaths were in New York. Indeed, New York then had more officially recorded deaths than any country in the world. Half those deaths involved seniors in nursing facilities—a consequence of then-Gov. Cuomo’s disastrous policy of moving coronavirus patients into those facilities. These deaths call into question Dr. Allen’s thesis that policy at the federal level is mostly to blame for the country’s poor pandemic response. Yet Dr. Allen never mentions this monumental policy failure in a blue state.  

Perhaps it’s because she obtained her information second-hand, through whatever partisan media sources found their way to her office computer. For Dr. Allen’s partisan bent is obvious: the problems she identifies and the ones she does not show that she has particular ideological purposes in mind. On the first page, she bemoans how so many women lost their jobs during the pandemic. Curious, the reader wonders, did not some men also lose their jobs? She bemoans how the nation’s schools were still functioning remotely after a year into the pandemic. Yet never once does she implicate the teachers’ unions in this fiasco, which even union-friendly mayors such as Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot eventually got around to doing, and that eventually led to a parents’ revolt not only in purple Virginia but in deep-blue San Francisco, where three school board members were recently recalled. And of course, the book has the usual diatribe against Trump.

Dr. Allen penetrates only the most superficial layers of coronavirus policy and has but feeble ties with reality.

For instance, she pushes mask-wearing as an obvious way to fight infection spread. She calls it a “no-brainer.” But the issue is more complicated. Studies suggest that mask mandates had no effect on coronavirus case numbers. States with mask mandates fared no better than those that did not in terms of slowing the infection. Then there is the issue of what kind of mask to mandate. Dr. Allen fails to go into detail. Cloth masks proved useless. Would she still insist on people wearing them? The best masks are N95 masks, especially those properly fitted. Yet getting properly fitted can be a lengthy process, and they don’t work well for kids or men with beards. Does Dr. Allen expect all Americans to undergo it?

Besides, how beneficial would masks really be, given conventional human failings that Dr. Allen cannot see from her great height? In Italy, for example, infected children contributed to a large number of coronavirus deaths because of the tendency toward multigenerational living in that country. Yet a simple knowledge of human nature—and reality—reveals why mask mandates failed to control for this problem both in Italy and the U.S.

Here in the U.S., for example, my daughter wears a mask to school, yet she still hugs her friends. All her friends hug each other, she confesses. So much for social distancing. And of course, teenagers take their masks off to kiss, I was told. Apparently, that’s what nature designed lips for. In one final snippet, my daughter told me the story of how two masked girls in chemistry class performed a lab experiment that required each to blow up a balloon. One girl took off her mask to blow up her balloon, but had trouble inflating it, so another girl came over from six feet away, removed her mask, and blew up the girl’s balloon for her, then put her mask back on and retreated the requisite six feet. The first girl said thank you, then blew a little more air into her balloon (now covered with germs from the second girl), before putting her mask back on. All the while, both girls thought they were following school protocol.

Mask wearing, Dr. Allen argues, would have allowed American schools to open safely by September 2020. More likely, monkey wrenches like these would have kept flying into her simplistic plan. It is probably why compulsory mask-wearing among children and teenagers failed to slow infection rates in the U.S. It also probably explains why a total lockdown in Italy two weeks after the infection began, far exceeding mere mask mandates, still left Italy with the fourth-highest per capita pandemic death rate in the world.

Dr. Allen speaks abstractly and colorlessly of “building an infrastructure” that includes “a culture of adherence to universal precautions of mask-wearing.” But as the pandemic has shown, it is easier to write ten books of philosophy than to put a single principle into practice.

Even if Dr. Allen’s “no-brainer” solution of a mask mandate had become policy, where would Americans have found protective masks early on? When the pandemic hit, the offshoring of mask manufacturing to China, a consequence of globalization, a policy that many establishment liberals supported for the last 30 years, caused a mask shortage. Did Dr. Allen support globalization? If so, would she reverse course now and throw in her lot with Trump’s protectionism?  

Then again, why couldn’t Americans just access the stockpile of N95 masks the government was supposed to keep? Answer: Because the stockpile became depleted during the Obama years, a fact that even the progressive newspaper USA Today admitted was true. But while eager to blame Trump, Dr. Allen never blames Obama for anything. Indeed, his name doesn’t even appear in the book’s index.

The combination of seclusion in a university office, over-confidence, and partisan bias leads Dr. Allen to give more questionable advice. She praises South Korea’s early and vigorous testing protocol. She says the U.S. should have adopted a similar policy. But South Korea recently dropped its testing protocol amid the deadliest period in its pandemic, saying the protocol wasn’t feasible, as it had “excessively high social and economic costs,” according to one senior South Korean health official.

None of this really matters, though, as fixing coronavirus policy doesn’t seem to be Dr. Allen’s primary purpose. She seems more interested in changing American democracy. The pandemic is simply a convenient crisis by which to make her case. Indeed, she could have written “Democracy in the Age of Oil Shocks” and reached the same conclusions.

Allen’s book reads more like a fairy tale, with perfect good and perfect bad, and magical straight lines that simply do not exist.

What We Don’t Know

Here, in fact, the book has potential, as Dr. Allen expresses support for the concept of federalism, calling our federal system “one of our most valuable assets.” She also supports returning more power to the legislative branch at the expense of the executive. She reminds readers that Congress, not the Executive, is the first branch of government. She even cites The Federalist Papers, noting that for the founders “the legislative branch had primacy in all their writings.” On these two issues, she shares common ground with conservatives. Yet she never descends from the Harvard heavens to deal with the nitty-gritty. She writes in generalities. For that reason alone, conservative readers would never know if she meant federalism “for me” but not “for thee.” Given the partisan tone of the rest of the book, one has good reason to be skeptical.

For instance, Dr. Allen emphasizes the role of civic engagement in democracy. According to her Twitter feed, she supported Black Lives Matter as one form of civic engagement. Would she also have supported the truckers’ convoy heading toward Washington D.C. to protest vaccine mandates? We don’t know. She writes down thesis after thesis on the subject of democracy—while in the world of reality one angry mob follows on the heels of another. Yet we have no idea where for her the reign of reason ends and barbarism begins.  

It seems to be a partisan distinction, though. Because of the lack of civic engagement in the U.S., Dr. Allen says “the art of governance is, at best, on life support.” Yet “the best civics lesson in generations” she could think of was, of course, the Trump impeachment trial, as his failures as president “stripped bare the truth of the vulnerability, fragility, and unsteadiness of our constitutional democracy,” she says.

Dr. Allen also bemoans the reduction in funding for civics education. Florida Governor DeSantis recently funded a new civics education initiative in his state. Yet the initiative’s curriculum relies heavily on traditional civics, emphasizing the Bill of Rights, rather than on Critical Race Theory. Would Dr. Allen support this initiative? We don’t know. She also writes in support of the Fourteenth Amendment and its Equal Protection Clause. Would she invoke that amendment to prevent Asians from being discriminated against in Harvard admissions? Again, we don’t know.

Dr. Allen wishes to teach people from the heights of her idealism. Then again, maybe she purposely speaks in generalities, with a plan to hoist the Jolly Roger if she’s ever in a position to make policy. (She did run for Governor of Massachusetts in 2021.) Again, we don’t know.

Dr. Allen emphasizes the need for “common purpose” in a democratic society. She calls it “the most powerful tool in the democratic toolkit.” Yet federal government officials, according to an article in the progressive magazine Slate, admittedly told “noble lies” during the pandemic. How can there be common purpose amid lies and public distrust?

In one example, in March 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump’s chief medical advisor, said wearing masks was unnecessary. Maybe he said this to avoid a run on masks. Months later, he decided that the public was ready to accept the opposite view, and changed his tune. In yet another example, he admitted to fibbing about what it would take for the U.S. to reach herd immunity, raising the bar when he thought he could get away with it. He did so not out of good science, he explained, but to promote the vaccine. In a third example, in 2020, Dr. Fauci and Francis Collins, then head of the NIH, shut down the opposition to lockdowns coming from the scientific community. They declared themselves to be the only true voice of science. They weren’t. To give the American public a single common message and unified purpose, they kept other scientific voices from being heard.

Does Dr. Allen support noble lies? Is she surprised by the public’s ingrained distrust of government that followed as a result? Again, we don’t know.

Yet as already noted, coronavirus policy was probably never her big concern. For at the book’s climactic end we get a litany of policy recommendations that have nothing to do with the coronavirus and are mostly a progressive wish list: more investment in education, ending the school-to-prison pipeline for young men of color, less mass incarceration, more infrastructure, more progressive taxes, more public-private partnerships, “elections with real choices,” “activists who organize for governance and not just for power,” and so on.

Fairy Tales

Some might liken this book to a philosophy book. It is true that philosophers often speak in generalities. High-minded and pure, they point out the path to virtue for others to tread, although they may not follow it themselves. Indeed, few can. Reality won’t let them.

Yet this is more of a children’s book, like a fairy tale. Fairy tales have magical straight lines that do not exist in reality. Children begin by judging this way; they read fairy tales to learn what is perfectly good and perfectly bad. Eventually, children gain real-world experience and inscribe particular truths within the simple notions they have already traced out. Life teaches children that lines are never straight, but always crossing here and there. Indeed, the great road of childhood goes from the abstract to the concrete, from the word to the thing, from fairy tale to reality. Adults recall the magical straight lines that symbolize ideals in fairy tales, but then use them to build things in the real world that are not all straight. They recognize that life has obstacles that must be considered. It is called thinking.

In the real world, it is not through golden rules, simple pieties, or visions of virtue that democracies improve, but through give-and-take and a healthy appreciation of life’s limits. Dr. Allen’s book reads more like a fairy tale, with perfect good and perfect bad, and magical straight lines that simply do not exist.

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