Opinion | When Politics Isn’t About Principle

Something like this divide existed very early on, with conservatives like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas expressing alarm about the outbreak while liberals decried the potential racism of a “Wuhan virus” panic. But by late spring of 2020, the entire dynamic was reversed: Liberals supported tough government interventions to fight the virus, the right was full of fierce libertarians, and so it has mostly remained.

You can blame Donald Trump’s early insouciance for establishing this pattern, or the way that Covid hit blue metropoles hardest early while taking much longer to take root in rural regions. But it’s also useful to do in-group/out-group analysis, which suggests that conservatives were more willing to support limitations on liberty that fell on foreigners and international travelers — to them, out-groups — but balked at restrictions that seemed to fall most heavily on their own in-groups, from the owners of shuttered businesses to the pastors of closed churches to the parents of small children deprived of school.

For many liberals, it was the opposite. Early on the idea of a travel ban or quarantine rule looked authoritarian and bigoted because it seemed likely to punish their own constituencies, especially immigrant communities in big cities. But the restrictions that were imposed from March onward were developed within one of liberalism’s inmost in-groups — the expert class, the public-health bureaucracy — and geared in different ways to the needs of other liberal constituencies: The professional class could adapt to virtual work, the teachers’ unions could mostly keep their paychecks without risking their health, and the youthful antiracism activists of spring and summer 2020 were conveniently deemed to be exempt from the rules that forbade other kinds of gatherings.

This same pattern shows up in the debate over vaccine mandates. The mainstream right clearly found it easier to be uncomplicatedly pro-vaccine when anti-vax sentiment was coded as something for crunchy “Left Coast” parents, as opposed to conservatives skeptical of the public-health bureaucracy and sharing Facebook posts on ivermectin.

On the other hand, the American Civil Liberties Union, or at least its Twitter account, has decided that vaccine mandates “actually further civil liberties” rather than traducing them. This seems somewhat hard to square with many of its past fears about government overreach in a pandemic — until you consider that those fears probably assumed a right-wing government acting punitively toward immigrants and racial minorities, whereas now the imagined target of the Biden administration’s mandate is white, rural and Republican.

The point of noting this dynamic is not to simply condemn everyone involved for hypocrisy. First, a lot of small-d democratic politics is inevitably just the negotiation between different groups based on their immediate interests rather than high principle, and it shouldn’t alarm us unduly that principle often bends to accommodate the defense of one’s own side.

Second, there can be a terrible and icy consistency among people who don’t change their views at all when the in-groups and out-groups seem to shift. Some of the most consistent people in politics right now, for instance, are former Bush Republicans and 9/11-era hawks who talk about Trump supporters who think the election was stolen the way they used to talk about foreign terrorists and the domestic left. In one sense their principle is admirable, but in another sense they seem to have learned nothing from the excesses of their own past alarmism, their War on Terror mistakes.

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