As we’ve discussed a number of times, Republican leaders made a clear decision over the winter of 2020-21 to embrace and cater to anti-vax, anti-mandate sentiment to supercharge their midterm election odds. I’ve seen some debate over whether GOP elites convinced GOP voters or GOP voters dragged along the elites. I think it’s a bit of both but mainly a non-issue. Unsurprisingly, elected officials and voters in a political party tend to think in similar ways. They decided to become the anti-vax party and thus helped usher in the fourth COVID wave.
But something happened on the way to the party: the Delta variant.
Not that that this wasn’t a very bad, sociopathic decision to start with. After all the great majority of GOP elected officials were, like Tucker Carlson, at the front of the line to get vaccinated themselves. But the consequences became far more acute. Three months ago many people believed that in the US COVID was basically over. You could cater to anti-vax sentiment and reap the electoral rewards while free-riding off the vaccinated herd. There was no downside – at least no political one. Whether that was ever going to be true, Delta clearly made it not true.
Today our team is reporting on two current manifestations of this dynamic. Republican governors with national political ambitions are not only maintaining a lax approach to mitigation they are courting anti-vax and anti-mandate sentiment by forbidding local governments to take decisions to protect their own localities. This is playing out in bans on school districts mandating masks in schools. Schools are a unique case since despite children generally having mild outcomes, most children aren’t vaccinated and children under 12 can’t be vaccinated.
The really stark development though is that school districts around Florida and Texas are simply defying the state government and doing mask mandates anyway. Unlike general mask mandates, mandates for masks in schools seem pretty popular during the current outbreak. But it’s that open defiance that tells the tale. Local officials don’t take those kinds of decisions unless they feel they have strong, even overwhelming public opinion on their side. Governors are taking local officials to court, threatening to withhold their pay, even threatening to jail them. When you’re doing these things you’re losing.
In many cases this is Republican states, with Republican state governments rooted in rural and exurban regions in conflict with more liberal major metropolitan areas. But it’s not just the liberal areas.
At the same time – and this is another topic we’re going to be looking closely at today on the site – you have local, often suburban and rural, school board meetings disrupted by anti-mask protestors. This is part of a more general pattern we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic: protests at school boards first over COVID restrictions and then also over “critical race theory” and Black Lives Matter activism and “anti-woke” activism. These have been followed by waves of recall elections. (There’s been parallel “big lie” activism which has targeted local election administrators who’ve been subjected to recalls or otherwise driven from office – often with campaigns of harassment or threats of violence.)
Every locality is different of course. But in most of these cases it seems like the school boards are generally supported by their local communities on masking, though this is obviously difficult to tell with any certainty. But particularly at the school board level where voter participation is often thin an aggrieved minority can often carry the day. What it seems like at least is that these protestors are generally on the wrong side of public opinion. There’s very, very little appetite for new school closures or remote schooling. But masking is a relatively easy lift and it seems like an obvious decision given the current Delta climate and the fact that millions of kids aren’t even vaccinated.
Congress is now heading off for its August recess. That means a lot of fundraising. But it also means a lot of face time with constituents in states and districts. There’s a history here. It was during the August recess in 2009 that Republicans mobilized a wave of townhall protests around the country. They were rowdy and raucous and sometimes verged into violence; often they included aggressive ‘open carry’ activism. These presaged the GOP House landslide in 2010. But they also shaped public perceptions of the political moment, particularly around public attitudes about Obamacare. These weren’t organic and unrehearsed events. They were closely choreographed. But they had a big effect. They caught Democrats off guard.
This is precisely the kind of backlash summer Republicans were and are looking for. And it’s not like they have to look hard for aggrieved activists to go to events and shout down local officials. Still, along with what seems to be minority opposition to school masking mandates there appears to be growing anger among the vaccinated – who make up the overwhelming majority of adults in most of the country – at the voluntarily unvaccinated who are the primary reason why we’re in the current situation.
I think there’s little question Republicans are on the wrong side of public opinion right now. That’s what was behind the brief “hey, we always totally wanted you to get vaccinated” outburst from Republican elites about a month ago. But activated minorities can often punch above their weight, particularly when the electoral system gives their voters outsized power. So over August particularly, as a tired, bedraggled country sees cases skyrocket and hospitals in red states overflow we’re set for a battle of grievances – most visible in protests and townhalls and school board meetings across the country.