Turning a Corner, Away from Excessive Risk Aversion
A Commentary by Michael Barone
It feels like we're turning a corner.
Since the beginning of the calendar year, a lot of things have changed. More importantly, a lot of minds have changed as well. The world and the nation don't look like they used to, and don't seem likely to again any time soon.
Consider the masks. On New Year's Day, 30% of people in 11 states and the District of Columbia were subject to statewide masking mandates. In addition, mask mandates were in effect in several dozen politically liberal cities and counties in other states, raising coverage to more than one-third of the population. The nation continued to be divided, as it had been since spring 2020, between masked states and unmasked states, a division eerily similar to the partisan divide between blue states and red states.
The 11 states and D.C. with mask mandates intact last Jan. 1 cast all of their 155 electoral votes for Joe Biden. In only one (Nevada) was Biden's percentage margin in the single digits. In contrast, the rest of the country voted 232 to 151 for Donald Trump. Thus, differences in risk tolerance were highly correlated with partisan preference, and often with similar vehemence.
Despite accumulating evidence that widespread vaccination had reduced the deadliness of successive COVID variants, many blue state residents clung to their masks. Appearing in public maskless, some said, might lead people to think they voted for Trump.
Now, just three months into the year, the statewide and D.C. mask mandates are gone. Still lingering, here and there, are mask mandates for schoolchildren, despite overwhelming evidence that benefits are minimal and the costs, in terms of reduced learning and sociability, are substantial.
Few other countries have insisted on masks for grade-schoolers. But teachers unions are stronger here, at least within the Democratic Party, than elsewhere, and so many blue states have followed the politics and ignored the science.
Support for similar left-wing lunacy seems to be evaporating. In February, three members of the school board were recalled -- booted from office in San Francisco, of all places.
This wasn't a freak result. Turnout was high, and 70% voted to get rid of each of the three. The SF board, like many in urban districts, kept the schools closed yet spent weeks plotting to rename them, canceling everyone from George Washington to Dianne Feinstein.
Then, in mid-March, an EMC Research poll showed that 68% of San Franciscans intend to oust District Attorney Chesa Boudin in the June recall election. Boudin, like other left-wing prosecutors, has sharply reduced prosecutions, which has resulted in sharp increases in violent crime. To liberals, de-prosecuting crime, just like defunding the police, seemed like a good idea after the George Floyd riots in June 2020. But in the cold light of March 2022, not so much -- not even for Bay Area liberals.
We've turned a corner abroad, too. Who expected, last New Year's Day, that Russia would stage a 1940s-fashion invasion of Ukraine? And who predicted that such an invasion, after five weeks, would fail to capture Kyiv or other major cities and wouldn't overturn Ukraine's government?
The outcome isn't known or knowable now, but the Ukraine war has at the least overturned conventional wisdom on many fronts. In an era supposedly organized by a "rules-based international order," Ukraine has shown the vitality of nationalism, good and bad, as I have argued in this space.
As Michael Lind writes in Tablet, "With few exceptions, Americans of left, right and center rallied around the national colors" -- of Ukraine. "Many Americans and Western Europeans have found an outlet for a lost sense of belonging by borrowing the national pride of another nation."
Yet one sanction European leaders haven't adopted is ending purchases of Russian oil and natural gas, although Vladimir Putin's geopolitical power is based on fossil fuel. Biden halted imports of Russian fossil fuels on March 8. As Walter Russell Mead argued in 2017, an American leader bent on maximizing Putin's leverage would limit fracking, block oil pipelines and cut military spending -- a perfect description of the Biden administration's and European leaders' policies pre-Ukraine. Because of an aversion to the alleged long-term risks of climate change (formerly known as global warming), they have followed policies that weaken us and strengthen Putin right now. Biden canceled the Keystone pipeline, discouraged fracking, banned new Alaska drilling and is now discouraging liquefied natural gas exports just when they are most needed.
In international relations and national governance, there is always a need to assess risks and the costs of averting them. Excessive risk aversion can be costly, economically and in human lives.
So it has proved in COVID precautions, in law enforcement procedures, in environmental regulations. But quite unexpectedly, these past few weeks, it feels like we're turning a corner.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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