The American people have spoken: We want to get back to work. The “social distancing” ordered by all the ham-fisted government autocrats is a cure that’s worse than the disease. We patriots are ready to face the risks. And we need haircuts.
Well, okay, not all Americans believe that. Actually, if we’re being honest, it’s only a very, very small number. In a recent Politico/Morning Consult tracking poll, 81 percent of respondents said social distancing should continue as long as necessary even if it meant sustained damage to the economy, while just 10 percent think social distancing restrictions should be eased immediately. To put that number in perspective, 18 percent of Americans believe in alien abductions.
Other polls from across the country mirror the Politico/Morning Consult survey. Some 95 percent of Angelenos support L.A.’s stay-at-home orders. Another CBS poll found that Americans were much more concerned about the economy opening too quickly than too slowly, and just 13 percent of respondents said they’d be returning to public spaces in a few weeks even if their local officials urged it. In an ABC poll released on Friday, 82 percent of Republicans and 98 percent of Democrats signed on to the sentiment that stay-at-home orders “are responsible government policies that are saving lives.”
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A recent poll of Texans conducted by the University of Texas showed in-state public opinion a little more mixed, thanks to higher discontent among Republicans here than in other states. But even here, just 9 percent of voters say the shutdowns should start to be phased out immediately, and more say they’re concerned about the lockdowns ending too early than too late.
The extraordinary economic pain the shutdown has caused is clear to everybody, and the stay-at-home orders have made us all feel at least a little miserable and a little crazy. And yet, if the shutdown were a politician, it would be the most popular one in the country. That’s remarkable.
By and large, Americans believe that the virus is a threat to them and those they care about, and they’re broadly on board to sacrifice in whatever way is necessary to protect their neighbors and family. There’s a popular notion that Americans are more selfish than they used to be. The country’s response to the virus so far belies that.
And yet, the portion of the populace calling for a quick return to “normal” order, while indisputably small—maybe 10 to 25 percent of Americans, depending on how you poll the question—has gotten louder and more prominent in the last week. There’s the more inchoate and angry side of the backlash, which can be seen in the small protests that have popped up in major American cities recently, including in Austin last weekend and Houston on Thursday. Then there’s the official side—those politicians and business leaders who are urging an expeditious return to normal-ish economic activity.
The two feed on each other—both urged on by big-money groups active in right-wing politics, including some based right here in Texas—but they have to be considered separately. First, the protests. On Saturday, a few dozen protestors convened at the Capitol in Austin to make clear their dissatisfaction with being told to stay home. The rally was amply covered by state and national media outlets, despite being roughly the same size as the protests that often take place at the Capitol steps about subjects such as sharia law or the proposed cancellation of American Ninja Warrior.
So despite small numbers and a message that emphatically does not resonate with the public, a wide audience around the country came to hear the protestors’ complaints, slogans and chants, which included a demand to “Fire Dr. Fauci,” signs about how vaccines cause autism (they don’t), and something about how Texans would not willingly be branded with the mark of the beast, in the form of a potential vaccine.
The Austin crowd included some colorful characters, and they can be fun to look at. We’re all stuck at home and on our third run-through of The Sopranos—literally or figuratively—and here are some folks who think that the CDC is part of a satanic plot but that the virus it is fighting is not. Alex Jones, the famous peddler of conspiracy theories and, until recently, alleged coronavirus cures, wanders through the crowd, shaking hands and breathing in the face of protesters who aren’t wearing masks. (Call the Austin protest the Alex Jonestown Massacre, if you will.)
We know the math on this. We know that there are likely asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus at these protests, and we’re watching in real time as they give the virus to other people, who may in turn pass it on to others. Statistically speaking, some members of that chain will probably die. It’s grim and transfixing. We gawk at this spectacle for the same reason we binge-watch Tiger King.
But our focus on these protestors, perhaps, creates the impression that their views are popular. And that helps the second category of the get-back-to-work crowd, the more influential cohort, who are urging the president and Governor Greg Abbott to put everybody back to work as soon as possible. They, too, are multiplying, and getting louder. And that’s notable because most in this group belong to the right wing of the Republican party that Abbott has historically listened to, whether out of affinity or fear or both. They blame Abbott personally for what’s going on, in sometimes harsh and striking terms, and they might weigh on his thinking going forward.
Missives from this crowd include an April 14 letter signed by members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus, which proclaimed that “it is ultimately the individual Texan’s responsibility to keep themselves [sic] safe.” On April 15, former state senator Don Huffines wrote a remarkable op-ed that concluded that “hardworking Texans… know the solutions to our problems come from ourselves.” It continued: “Abbott is accountable for destroying the Texas economy and the generational consequences that will follow.”
There’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who has appeared on Fox News at least three more times in the last week to say again that “there are more important things than living,” and that, in his opinion, Americans were ready to roll the dice in hopes of rapidly reviving the economy. Then there’s Tim Dunn, the billionaire conservative political donor and oilman who has historically backed all of the above, who too says it’s time for people to get back to work.
It’s important to be clear about this: going “back to work” means some portion of the workers are going to die. Potentially quite a few, if Texas is unlucky. Is some incremental increase in deaths worth whatever economic activity Texas is able to squeak out in the interim? Maybe. The pain caused by this economic collapse will be vast.
But the idea that things are going to return to normal once the governor snaps his fingers is delusional. As the polls show, Texans aren’t staying home simply because Abbott is telling them to. They’re staying home because there’s a pandemic going on, and because doctors and public health experts are nearly unanimous in their recommendations. They’re staying home because they’re worried about themselves and those they care about, and they’re not going back to Dave & Busters because any public official tells them to.
Huffines is a real estate developer. Patrick loves his Houston radio station like it’s his child. Dunn is an oil guy, and he and his friends are getting hammered from lack of demand and oversupply. None of these men are on the Texas Medicaid program. They’re going to get a fine standard of care if they get sick. What they need is for everyone else to go about their business. (Trump also owns a business, of course.) Seen in that light, their demands are insidious. Rich folk can stay home, hop on Zoom to do their white-collar jobs, and keep ordering grocery delivery through Favor. Poor folks, if they ever stopped going to work, will have to go back to it—physical work, in proximity to others. The unemployment rolls will drop, but the hard work of dying will be borne unequally.
That may lubricate the economy some, but if anyone thinks we’re going back anytime soon to the way things were in January they’re kidding themselves. Abbott is not the reason Texans are staying home, and the lifting of stay-at-home orders won’t save businesses. There’s only one way out of this, the only one that’s been available all along: to beat the virus. Or rather, for the feds—for this administration—to build out a vast public health effort, well-funded and competent, capable of tracking its advance and retreat in minute and real-time detail. The financial well-being of the business leaders who have been pressuring Abbott to reopen the state now depend far less on the governor than on President Trump, whom they helped elect, and who, as the protests carried on this week, suggested that Americans look into injecting themselves with disinfectant to kill the virus. Well done, fellas.